On a sunny day ahead of a week of rain in northeast Iowa, Jerome Fulsaas monitored the application of spring fertilizer and cover crops on his farm.

The Winneshiek County Farm Bureau member is no stranger to applying cover crops ahead of soybeans. For 15 seasons now, he has grown everything from buckwheat to cereal rye and oats to legumes on acres intended for soybeans. But starting in 2020, he applied cover to every acre, every year.

“My goal is to have something growing in these fields the whole time between thaw and freeze,” Fulsaas said.

The field being worked in mid-March had a mix of potash and ammonium sulfate (AMS), along with oats and buckwheat, applied to corn stubble ahead of soybean planting later this spring.

“I always tell guys who want to get into cover crops, just have your co-op mix in some cover crops with your fall fertilizer application on bean ground,” Fulsaas said. “In the spring, you burn it down at the same time you’re applying herbicide normally.”

Fulsaas farms land he bought from his parents back in the 1990s. Until 2006, he was a full-time high school agriculture teacher, then worked as an ag lender until he retired in 2013 to farm full time. 

Working closely with his wife, Jannelle, and daughter Danielle, the family row-crops corn and soybeans, grows alfalfa, maintains pasture ground for a small beef herd, raises broiler and layer chickens, and owns two finishing barns of about 1,000 hogs each. The family has about 150 acres of timber ground and also raises horses, with a lot of help from Danielle, who has worked for many years as a horse trainer.

Regenerative practices

Fulsaas has aggressively im­plemented cover crops and other regenerative ag practices.

“I want to find ways to be more profitable but also improve my soil,” he said. 

For example, Fulsaas said he cut out one herbicide application a season thanks to weed suppression offered by the early spring growth of cover crops. 

He also sources most of his crop's nitrogen needs from his hog barns, especially helpful in years of high input costs like this one. 

He limits applications of pesticides and fungicides to seasons when it is absolutely necessary. 

“I don’t know that I’ll ever go organic or anything like that, but I like to use as little (chemical inputs) as possible,” Fulsaas said.

And how does he know these practices are improving his land? He checks the creek running through his pasture, maybe 100 yards from his front door.

“Used to be, when we’d get a heavy rain, that creek would fill up the whole pasture. Over the last few years, when it pours, it doesn’t hardly move,” he said. The soil absorbs more moisture than it did in the past.

Interseeding covers

The most recent expansion of his cover crop practices was interseeding into corn at the V4 or V5 stage. 

Fulsaas found last year, even though it was drier than normal, the cover crop mix of clover, radish and rye grass took off right away, then went dormant when the corn canopied. When he harvested the corn in the fall, the cover crop sprung back to life.

Adding grass into his alfalfa fields allows him to cut hay three times a year and leave the would-be fourth cutting in place for fall grazing. 

Next up, in what he likes call his scientific exploration of cover crop use, is double cropping cereal rye in soybean fields. 

His plan next year is to let the cereal rye mature and drill soybeans into green rye stands. He will harvest and save the cereal rye for his own cover crop needs, with the expectation that soybean growth will take off once the rye is gone in June.

“There’s not a lot of research out there on this stuff,” Fulsaas said. “I guess I’m running experiments.”

This fall, he will also be looking into the pros and cons of having cover crops seeded via plane or drone. 

“I’m reading about this stuff every day, doing my own research,” Fulsaas said. “But really there is no one-size-fits-all. What works for me on my hills, may not work for a guy with a flat field somewhere else. You need to find out what works for you.”

Fulsaas said his county Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office has been a great resource for cover crop and soil improvement assistance.

“There are grants out there that will basically pay for the cover for the first few years,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything just to give it a try.”