Conservation Conversations: Why Cover Crops?

Dec 03, 2020

I’ve often been asked why I plant cover crops. There’s a short history that goes along with the answer to that question. In 2008, we were inundated with some exceptionally large rain events that caused severe flooding next to my home. Within five days, it the costliest flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, history.

I had been a long-term no-tiller/strip-tiller but could see that more still needed to be done on the landscape to mitigate these huge rainstorms. How can we make the landscape act like a sponge to absorb and hold more water?

In 2012, I was doing strip trial work with the Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network. Cover crops were gaining traction, and many of us began cover crop trials on our farms. A year later, Iowa adopted The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to help reduce the nutrient losses into the Mississippi watershed that were a primary cause of the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. A year later, my own watershed (Rock Creek) adopted its nutrient reduction strategy, all of which recognized the major role that cover crops could play in nutrient reduction from our farms. Following that timeframe, soil health took front stage, and once again, cover crops could potentially play a major role in improving soil health.

The final straw for me was the Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit in 2015. I served as president of the Iowa Soybean Association during the second year of that lawsuit, and it was something I never hoped to see again. From that point on, I was fully committed to cover crops and making them work on my farm.

I immediately saw the nitrate reductions in our tile drainage water equal to or more than espoused in the nutrient reduction plan. Cover crops work well to improve water quality, and now, coming into my fifth year of 100% cover crops in rotation, we indeed are seeing soil health benefits. Now looking into the future, the role that cover crops can play in reducing atmospheric CO2 and sequestering carbon in our soils makes this practice even more exciting and one I will strive to perfect on my farm.  Cover crops can be a win with a multitude of benefits for the land, water, air and the farmer.

“Conservation Conversations” is part of ASA’s December #CoverCropChristmas campaign to highlight the benefits of planting cover crops and the commitment of U.S. soybean growers to conservation measures on their farms.