Washington County Farm Bureau member Michael Vittetoe is taking cover crops to a new level, something that is an extension of the conservation legacy started by his father and grandfather four decades ago when they began practices such as no-till, terracing, buffer strips and waterways. 

The family introduced no-till as a way of erosion control and time savings resulting from spending fewer hours in the field. Vittetoe’s father began using cover crops in 2010 with a 40-acre field as an experiment. 

During the last two years, the Vittetoes seeded 100% of their 1,400 acre farm in cover crops and have progressed to using some innovative cover crop techniques and practices. Those practices primarily apply to cover crops planted ahead of soybeans and include specialized strip-till planting of rye cover crops as well as a relay cropping system.

Their strip-till cover crop methodology involves planting 10-inch twin rows of rye on 30-inch centers. This results in two rows of rye 10 inches apart with a 20-inch skip zone where they plant corn or soybeans. 

The Vittetoes plant soybeans in late April or early May while the rye is still small and then let the soybeans and rye grow together. If there is enough moisture, they let the rye grow until it starts pollinating before terminating it. 

Historically they have used herbicides to terminate their cover crops, but they are moving toward using a roller-crimper to terminate the rye. They use a homemade in-row roller crimper unit that Vittetoe assembled using  some old strip-till equipment. He calls it the “Unobtainium” because he has no plans to build another one, and you can’t buy it anywhere else. 

The ‘Unobtainium’ rolls and crimps the rye between soybean rows without harming the beans. The rolled rye is left in the field, where it creates a thick mulch that helps keep moisture in the soil, shades out weeds and keeps soil temperatures cooler during grain fill.

Relay cropping

The Vittetoes also use a relay cropping system, where they let the rye grow to maturity and then harvest it over the top of growing soybeans — a form of double cropping they feel has the potential for improving farm profitability. 

When harvesting the rye, they run the combine header 30 inches high or more to stay above the soybeans. 

They have 70 acres they are experimenting on relay crops, which Vittetoe says can be complicated. In the first year, they found the double cropping system was $75 per acre more profitable compared to early terminated rye.

Weed control benefits

In addition to soil health, one of the other major benefits of cover crops is weed control, according to Vittetoe. He says the family has cut its herbicide costs by more than 60% and hopes to cut those costs even further — and maybe even eliminate them all together. He adds that cover crops have allowed the family to completely eliminate the use of residual herbicides.

Vittetoe, 35, graduated from the University of Iowa with a civil engineering degree and came back to farm full-time in 2014. He and his wife have four children. 

He received the Environmental Leader Award from the Iowa Soybean Association in January 2022, and regularly shares his knowledge with other farmers at field days and other events.

Vittetoe summarizes his conservation philosophy by saying: “I believe in a future where production agriculture operates in sync with nature to create a healthy ecosystem, healthy livestock, healthy food and healthy humans.” 

Meyer is a freelance writer in Garrison.