Brandon Reis, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, has found that cover crops have taken his farm’s conservation efforts to a new, and higher, level.  

“We had improvements in soil health by using no-till practices,” said Reis, who raises row crops and hogs with his father, Ron. “But what we found is with the addition of cover crops, the level of biological activity from earthworms and fungi have stepped the soil structure and health up to another level. We seemed to be at a plateau, but adding cover crops moved us to a new level of soil health we didn’t even realize was there.”

The Reis farm, which earned an Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award in 2017, started planting cover crops in 2013 and has increased the acreage each year. This year, all of their acres are planted with cover crops. They plant mostly cereal rye, which they’ve found seems to do the best in northern Iowa’s climate.

Controlling erosion

The farmers originally began planting cover crops to control soil erosion, Reis explained. “We felt like no-till was helping to control a lot of erosion, but we still had spots with highly erodible soils that seemed like they did not handle the extreme rains we are getting with increased frequency, so we were looking for something to improve that.”

They found an answer in cover crops, which have reduced soil loss despite extreme rain events that have occurred in northeast Iowa.

Another advantage of cover crops has been the increased biological activity in the soil. The activity has risen to a point that by late summer nearly all of the organic material from the previous crop year is gone. It has all been digested and broken down, Reis said.

The Reises plant cover crops in the fall using a variety of methods. They fly cereal rye onto their standing corn acres in the last week of August to early September, timing it to rain forecasts. The last two years they have also begun planting after harvest using a vertical tillage tool with a seed box that Reis fabricated himself. Cover crops also work well with their manure management plan, Reis said.

They inject manure into their fields then apply the cover crop, which helps capture the nutrients and protects the soil.

Planting into residue

In the spring, the Reises plant directly into cover crop residue. On acres going to corn, they spray to terminate the cover crop a week in advance of corn planting. On acres going to soybeans, the Reises terminate the cover crops just as they are planting.

Reis advises farmers just starting out with cover crops to start small. “Start with what you’re comfortable with, maybe 80 acres. Get that under your belt, and move out from there. I also encourage farmers to work with their local office of the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). Use their knowledge and expertise.”

Neil Shaffer with Howard County NRCS commends Reis’ dedication to conservation. “Not only doing them, but understanding how and why we do things and beyond that promote conservation practices. He’s very passionate about what they are doing with their land.”

A long-term view

Reis sums up his conservation philosophy: “We look at conservation practices from the long-term view of protecting our investment in the soil and our farms. We want to make sure that our farms are better in the future than they are today. With no-till and cover crops, we feel there is an opportunity for reduced inputs such as fertilizer as well as improvements in crop yields due to improved soil structure and soil health.”

Meyer is a freelance writer in Garrison.