Hitting the Road with Conservation

The week before Thanksgiving, your Holmes County Soil and Water staff were preparing for another seasonal tradition:  The biennial cover crop county transect! Thanks to our program assistant, Dean Slates, we are continually encouraged to find ways to quantify work that we have done, or are thinking of doing.  Numbers aren’t the only thing, but it is one way to track our progress, or hone in on areas that need improvement.  Our transect route was designed to give a good overview of the county, as it crisscrosses every township…and doesn’t just stick to the main roads!

These are some pretty cool beans - mainly (in my opinion) because they are full of cover crops.

These are some pretty cool beans - mainly (in my opinion) because they are full of cover crops.

The goal with a transect like this is simply to inventory the crop fields adjoining roads and mark whether or not a cover crop was planted.  We didn’t record what kind of cover was used, or how it was planted, or to which farmer the fields belonged.  Even late-planted cover crops are identifiable from late season weeds, and our goal wasn’t to rank or give preference to any type of cover over another, since Holmes County farmers use cover crops for a variety of reasons.  We were just observing what’s out there.

By the end of the day, we had 536 fields classified:  What crop had been there (or in some cases, was still there), and was it now planted to a growing cover crop?  Overall, 70% percent of the corn silage fields had covers.  1% of the later-season picked cornfields had a cover crop on them…More surprisingly, and frankly, to my disappointment, only 9% of the soybean fields we saw had a cover.  91% didn’t, of 167 fields observed.  The thing to note about this number is that in 2015, 19% of the fields had covers, and in 2013, 35% did.  The number of fields planted hasn’t changed much, but the number of bean fields planted to a cover crop has dropped significantly every year since we’ve started keeping track.  Due to the lack of residue left on the ground after beans are harvested, these fields are particularly vulnerable to erosion, and gullies were already visible in many bare fields that we passed.

Perhaps to your relief, the point of this article isn’t really to go into the why of the situation, simply to present the numbers, and end on the positive lessons I took away from the experience.  The discouragement I felt over what our data was minor compared to the inspiration it revealed.  After that drive, I felt like we should be doing a tour like this all the time, to reacquaint ourselves with the backroads and keep a finger on the pulse of things.  It was so refreshing to have the opportunity to look into the nooks and crannies of this beautiful county.  Dean was able to share with me some history and context for what we drove past, and we both got to observe the little changes around the county:  What’s getting built, what’s changing owners, where are areas that need a little help, and who is really keeping things ship-shape. 

We know people love to come to Holmes County, because they are bringing fresh eyes to what we see all the time.  But there’s no reason to let familiarity blind us to the world around us.  Go take a drive down some “roads less traveled” in your daily life, leave your assumptions behind and bring along a willingness to see something new…And you’ll probably remember why you love it here so much, too.

And if you’re planning on planting soybeans next year, now’s the right time to be thinking about that cover crop, too!

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Karen joined the Holmes SWCD in January 2016.  A current resident of Wooster, Karen splits her time between Holmes and Wayne counties, and the “home farm” near Bellville, Ohio. Since joining the staff, she has been involved with a variety of tasks within the office, including soil testing and nutrient recommendations, water sampling, conservation planning, field days and educational programming.  She is on the state committee for the Ohio Envirothon, and is working with the multi-county water quality stewardship program, Credits 4 Conservation.  She spends Tuesday mornings at the Farmerstown sale barn to increase SWCD’s presence in southern Holmes County, and she has taken charge of the MWCD cover crop cost-share program.  The wide range of conservation projects, outreach, and technical assistance that the Soil and Water office provides is the main reason she looked for an opening in this field, and Karen considers herself extremely lucky to have found the perfect position in Holmes County.  She can be reached at 330-600-3107 or kgotter@co.holmes.oh.us.

Thanks to John Lorson for the use of the cover photo on this blog post.