Expense of land cover crops worthwhile

September 21, 2018

ST. PETER, Minn. — It takes a little work to make cover crops work for farmers, but Marty Mogensen believes it’s worth the effort.

Mogensen’s family owns and operates a 2,400-acre corn and soybean farm in rural Oshawa Township just north of Seven Mile Creek. They’ve been concerned about soil erosion for years, trying reduced till or strip till practices — in essence trying to minimize how much they disturb the soil when planting and harvesting — for more than a decade.

The Mogensens turned to cover crops in 2016, where they grew grasses and legumes during and after the harvest season to help restore nutrients to the soil and prevent water runoff from their land. Those crops help prevent natural erosion, where wind and water slowly take off the land’s topsoil.

“Keeping the soil in place is a very important thing,” Mogenson said. “If the soil is exposed, especially when tilled, it’s prone to erosion. As expensive as land is, you don’t want it going into the river.”

Mogenson and his brother-in-law, Dan Coffman, were among several farmers who shared their experiences with other area ag producers in an event sponsored by the Seven Mile Creek Watershed Partnership Thursday in Oshawa.

The event is part of the partnership and Nicollet County Soil and Water Conservation District efforts to work with farmers to keep soil in the field and out of the watershed.

Reduced tilling practices and cover crops are more commonly used in the South where the climate allows for longer growing seasons. Though oats, rye, barley and other grasses are common cover crop options in the state, Minnesota’s colder climate doesn’t allow for cover crops to take hold in time to grow from autumn to spring. That means many cover crops need to be planted sometime between mid-July and mid-September, in the middle of the corn and soybean growing season.

“It’s a commitment to dive into doing cover crops and soil health,” said Eric Miller, a watershed technician with the county conservation district. “It’s a complete change in management systems.”

Reduced tilling practices can be difficult for farmers to manage. The Mogensen farm had several springs in recent years where it was difficult to get crops in the ground and turn a profit before they tried cover crops. Yet those cover crops can help bolster profits for farmers, act as a natural fertilizer and help restore organic matter in the soil, which helps retain water. That helps restore the land’s ability to produce crops.

“The no-till, strip till and cover crops, that’s our gateway to sustaining and regenerating the land,” Coffman said.

Minnesota is routinely among the top states in the nation when it comes to agricultural conservation practices. Yet only about 30 percent of farmers use reduced tilling practices on about 6.2 million acres total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 census.

The Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources began projects in 2015 to encourage cover crop use throughout the state, while the Minnesota Corn Growers Association has developed several programs to help farmers with reduced tilling.

Miller said he was pleased about 25 farmers and ag group representatives attended Thursday’s crop cover event. Yet he hopes area farmers reach out to learn more about cover crops. Miller noted the conservation district hopes to expand its agricultural programs across the county in the near future.

“If you’re here in Nicollet County, come in and talk to us,” he told farmers. “We want to know where you guys are at and what you guys are interested in doing.”

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