Special Projects

Featured image, above, shows 2015 (spring) cover crop on Dick Sloan’s farm.

Prairie Strips in Lime Creek watershed

Dick Sloan plants cover crops for second year

(December 2012) — Richard Sloan repeated his cover crop trials in the fall of 2012, building on the experiences of 2011-12. However, two big differences were the challenge of the 2012 drought and the switch to drilling as primary method to seed the cover crop seed.

“I only had one field where I aerially seeded 1.5 bushels of cereal rye into standing corn this year.  I don’t have an exact date, but it must have been Sept. 10-15,” Richard said,

The field, just east of I-380, stayed dry for the following month but the seed remained viable until after mid-October corn harvest, when it rained enough for the rye to grow.

In the other fields, Dick started drilling one bushel per acre of rye following harvest of soybeans and corn crops — Oct. 3 into an early variety corn in the field across the road south, and Oct. 8 into the soybeans in the field southwest of the interchange.

The soybean field to the west of I-380 didn’t get drilled until Oct. 29.

“This field had no cover crop last year while the other fields around the (I-380) intersection (were) aerially seeded last year, with highly variable results — many areas where it had been too dry to establish,” Richard said.

Finally, a field northwest of the interchange had corn this year was drilled Oct. 31.

“The drill is going to be my preferred method from now on.  Putting the seed an inch into soil and firming it in for good seed to soil contact is much more reliable in dry conditions, plus it’s nearly impossible to aerial seed a 10-acre three-cornered field and do a good job, said Richard.

“My pilot did an excellent job this fall, but he needs a good sized field with regular borders to do that good job.  I will plan to use him again next fall where I have fuller season corn hybrids and try to get him started by Labor Day.”

Sloan says he’s started talking with other producers to find some way to scatter rye with the chaff spreader of the combine as we harvest.  We wouldn’t get the firm seed to soil contact of a drill, he said, but it might be something busy farmers could adapt to and accept more easily.

He is also considering rigging a high clearance sprayer to apply cover crop seed before soybean harvest (on fields with 30 inch rows), and may try it into standing corn as well if there aren’t clearance issues.

Sloan first-year experiment with cover crops

Richard Sloan discusses his use of winter rye as a cover crop on land he farms in Lime Creek watershed. The photo was taken before the rye was sprayed with herbicide.

Richard Sloan discusses his use of winter rye as a cover crop on land he farms in Lime Creek watershed. The photo was taken before the rye was sprayed with herbicide.

BRANDON (April 2012) — What prevents soil erosion, improves the nutrient cycling, sustains the soils and protects the environment?

For some producers who have been returning to a very old practice there’s a simple answer – cover crops.

Richard Sloan, chairman of the Lime Creek Watershed council, planted winter rye cover crop last year in four fields, totaling about 120 acres, on his farm southeast of Brandon. The rye was treated with Round-up in early April of this year and the fields, on either side of I-380, were planted to corn and beans.

One of the cover crop locations will be the site of a field day on Friday, August 24, hosted by the Lime Creek watershed and the Cedar River Coalition.

Why did Sloan try cover crops?

“I was trying to keep a living crop (year around) to scavenge nutrients from the soil so they aren’t lost to leaching,” he answers.

There’s a little more to the answer, however. Dick grew up on the Lime Creek watershed farm and still works the land where his father lives. His own farm lies to the northeast and is part of Lime and Bear Creek watersheds (both flow into the Cedar River). He has a biology degree from Iowa State University and a deep interest in doing what is correct to sustain the land and his farming, including no-till (though he uses some tillage on corn-on-corn fields).

In September 2011, he attended a soil conservation conference in Des Moines and heard a presentation on cover crops given by Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa. He’d also seen videos on cover crops and heard about their use at other meetings and conferences. “There was a lot of press,” he added, so he decided to try.

The cover crop, winter or cereal rye, was aerial seeded at 1.5 bushels per acre in mid-September when the previous crop, soybeans and corn, was still in the field. Dick said there was some leaf drop in the beans and it looked as if it might be a dry fall with a risk that cover crop roots would dry out before the plants could establish themselves. Seeding was done by an Independence air service at a cost of $30—35 per acre.

Harvesting the previous crop didn’t harm the rye, Sloan said, and the mild winter seemed beneficial. “There were lots of times last winter when I’d go to the field and it would be greened up,” he says.

Dick thinks of his cover crop as an experiment.  He doesn’t think he’ll recover the out-of-pocket cost of seeding, and doesn’t “have high confidence” that cover crops improve the crop yield. There are some studies that show a yield loss with cover crops, he notes.

However, he says, cover crops play a part in tying up nutrients at the top of the soil profile, preventing them from filtering down.  And then there’s the obvious benefit of mitigating soil erosion; one of the cover crop fields had some erosion due to 2008’s heavy rains.

Sloan’s farm is part of Sustainable Corn and he is an advisory board member (he made the decision to try cover crops before he’d heard of the project). Sustainable Corn is shorthand for the Climate Change, Mitigation and Adaption in Corn-based Cropping Systems, a USDA-NIFA agricultural project involving 10 Midwestern land grant universities. The five-year project is assessing the environmental, economic and social impacts of long-term climate variability on corn-based cropping systems, gathering data from more than 20 field test sites in eight Midwestern states.

Sloan's cover crop in corn stubble


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