Economics drove Kevin Glanz to up his conservation game. 

Looking to reduce costs, the Delaware County Farm Bureau member sharply reduced his tillage program about a decade ago and began planting cover crops. And those moves, he said, continue to pay off.

Along with helping to reduce costs during the current era of low commodity prices, the conservation measures have helped Glanz improve soil health on his fields north of Manchester. Improved soil health, he said, has translated into reduced erosion, improved corn and soybean yields and more soil resiliency during the heavy rain events that have drenched Iowa often during the past several years.

“The big reason I made the change was to cut my input costs, to help survive tough times like these,” said Glanz, who farms north of Manchester. “But I’m really seeing a lot of gains in soil health over the past five years or so with the investments we’ve been making. We’re seeing a lot more earthworms, which is a sign of soil health. Our soils have become softer and more absorbent. I like to think of it looking like a chocolate cake, with a lot of air and give in it.”

Glanz, like many Iowa farmers, has learned a lot over the years about using conservation tillage and cover crops through trial and error. By reading, searching the internet and working with vendors, including Albert Lea Seed, the northeast Iowa farmer continually worked to develop and refine a program that works best for his fields.

Learning, experimenting

“It’s about learning and experimenting and getting comfortable with a practice,” Glanz said. “The key, I think, is being open to new ideas and being willing to experiment to make things work.”

There’s no doubt that moving to a no-till program has sharply trimmed fuel and labor costs, as well as reducing wear and tear on tractors and other machinery, Glanz said. “In this economic climate, you’ve got to find ways to reduce costs any way that you can, and reducing tillage is a very good place to do that.”

A self-described penny-pincher, Glanz has also developed strategies to reduce the cost of planting cover crops. He saves money by buying cereal rye seed early, to take advantage of discounts typically offered by seed companies before the big rush of demand in the late summer and early fall. Then he delivers the rye seed to his local co-op, where it's mixed with phosphorus and potassium and applied on his fields in the fall, saving the cost of another trip over the field.

Glanz uses a vertical tillage tool to incorporate the rye seed into soil. “With a cover crop, you just want to tickle it in. You don’t want to work it in, or the seed will get too deep,” he said.

Investing in soil health

Research shows that having a cover crop growing in soil in the late fall and early spring improves soil health and reduces erosion, Glanz said. “I really see it as an investment that I’m making in soil health,” he said.

Over the years, Glanz developed a list of the top 20 reasons for planting cover crops. The number 1 reason on the list is that cover crops help build soil health.

“Your soil is your greatest asset,” Glanz wrote. “Respect it, care for it and build it with everything you have. If you take care of it, it will take care of you.”

Glanz’s desire to build soil health is also driven by the fact that he farms poorer soils. “I farm a lot of coarser, thinner or sandier soils, so it’s very important to really take care of it,” he said.

Terminating cover crops

Experience has also helped Glanz hone his strategies for terminating cover crops, especially on fields that will be planted to corn. While others have been concerned that a rye cover crop is bad for corn, he’s not seeing that.

Glanz has seen good results by terminating his cover crop with a burn-down herbicide and planting corn or soybeans about five days later.

It’s important to be certain that the burn-down fully terminates the cover crop, Glanz said. “You want to make sure you kill the cover crop. You don’t want to just make it mad or it will cause you problems,” he said.

When it's time to terminate the cover crop, Glanz watches the long-term forecast closely, looking for days when the high and low temperature in 24 hours adds up to 100. “You need enough heat to get the herbicide to translocate in the plant and do its job,” he said.

Next, it’s critical to make sure to appropriately manage the nitrogen levels for the corn crop, Glanz said. “After the cover crop is terminated, there is no free nitrogen in the soil. Because of that, you have to make sure you apply enough to get the crop off to a good start.”

Earlier this year, Glanz was invited to speak about his experience with cover crops at a conference in eastern Iowa. The talk, he said, was well received, and he hopes to do more speaking on cover crops in the future.

“Cover crops take management, just like your primary crops,” Glanz said. “And as more people get comfortable with that, we’ll see more cover crops each year.”