Cover Crops in Holmes County, Part 1: Who's Using Them, and Why?

You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about cover crops these days, both in and outside of the agricultural community. That’s because there’s a lot to talk about!

The benefits of maintaining a cover crop in your operation run the gamut from suppressing weed growth, to creating beneficial wildlife habitat, to minimizing the effects of too much or too little moisture. These benefits are as equally useful in corn and bean fields as in your vegetable garden…and we have examples of cover crops in tomato beds and corn patches here in Holmes County!

Of course, this spring showed us many examples of the complexities of dealing with cover crops. Oats planted last fall had very little surface residue left by the end of winter, so early tillage and spring rains resulted in fields with obvious gullying. We have a few fields around the county that get planted to tillage radishes, but as they break down, they start stinking up the neighborhood.

And the small grain cover crops? On the west side of the county, there were hilly fields planted in lush stands of wheat and rye, which stood in stark contrast to fields with last year’s corn stubble, or wisps of bean stalk. Who doesn’t love something green and growing at the end of a grey February? Well, when that rye was still green and growing taller and taller and taller in May, I can think of a few people who weren’t loving it.

Now we’re in July, and in spite of those worries, the rye and wheat came off, the corn and beans got in, and the time to start thinking about next year’s cover crops is already upon us. Holmes Soil and Water has been invested in educating and helping to implement cover crop practices for the past several years, and we are gearing up for another season. In our county, we have many people who have been incorporating a cover crop into their operation for a variety of different reasons. Here’s what is happening locally, to give you some insight on SWCD’s cover crop initiative:

COVER CROPS IN HOLMES COUNTY

We just finished our 2016 Cover Crop program signup. Holmes SWCD, along with our neighboring counties in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD) work together to provide cost-share to participating farmers. As in past years, farmers who wish to participate in the program are put through a ranking process, to see which fields qualify as the highest need for cover. The criteria for scoring the ground is developed by MWCD, and includes factors such as the slope of the field, the commodity crop being planted, proximity to MWCD lakes, dry dams, streams and other waterways, and whether or not there was a cover on the field last season. This year, it was also required to have soil tests on the fields in the program.

The county conservation districts are allowed to award points for locally relevant criteria. This year, Holmes SWCD decided that a cover crop that will overwinter (such as rye, triticale, or wheat) shall receive 10 points, and that if the seeding method is broadcasting or aerial application, it will also earn 10 points. These local points were of interest because of their impact on one of our biggest objectives: preventing soil erosion.

A cover crop that isn’t killed by winter weather means you have to figure out how to terminate it in the spring, but the surface residue is much higher in these crops, which is key to reducing runoff. Additionally, the root systems that develop in the fall and early spring before termination are Step 1 to improving soil health: during their growing cycle, roots penetrate the soil structure, loosening the soil and increasing permeability (for better water infiltration). After the roots die, their remnants are food for earthworms and soil microorganisms (your “underground herd”), who a) convert this organic matter into available nutrients for your crop, and b) create even more pore spaces for water to travel through the soil profile.

As for the aerial seeding method, we don’t push it just because we like to watch the airplanes go over! Flying seed onto a standing crop means harvest dates and conditions in the field won’t get in the way of establishing a cover crop. This also results in fewer tractor passes over the ground, minimizing compaction, and significantly reduces the labor involved in getting your cover crop planted. However, less than half of our applicants elected the aerial fly-on method, because the resulting stand is not as even or dense as when it is drilled in. Many of the participants we work with are growing cover crops for feed or straw, or in a few cases, seed and grain. Therefore, they need a good harvest out of their cover crops.

After letters were sent and phone calls made, we had over 40 farmers apply for our program. This was the first year for some of them; others have participated since 2008, the first year we offered assistance in coordinating fly-ons, or offering some cost-share. Those 40 farms identified over 6,500 acres that they planned on planting to cover this fall. Each farmer has a limit of 200 acres that we can help fund, and Holmes County is limited to 3,000 acres total. However, most of our farmers have said they’re planting that cover crop whether or not they get accepted in the program. This is similar to last year, where Holmes County was capped at 3,000 acres, but 4,400 acres were reported as planted to a cover crop. The result? 14,495 tons of sediment, 13,913 pounds of phosphorus, and 27,811 pounds of nitrogen were kept on the field, and out of our streams.

Knowing there are people out there committed to building up our soils, protecting our water, and keeping agriculture on the forefront of conservation efforts makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, but knowing they’re your neighbors and friends really ought to make you feel good. So, here’s a big Thank You to our cover croppers!!!


Karen is the most recent addition to the Holmes SWCD staff.  Since joining the staff in January 2016, she has delved into the cover crop program, soil testing, nutrient recommendations, nutrient trading programs, and water sampling.  A 2009 graduate of Miami University’s Western College program with a Bachelor of Philosophy in environmental studies, she has worked in a variety of fields in southern Ohio, California, and Colorado.  She was most recently employed with the Farm Service Agency in Hamilton, Ohio, but is happy to return home and assist the Holmes community in agricultural and conservation pursuits.  Karen can be reached at 330-674-2811 or kgotter@co.holmes.oh.us