Are you covered on cover crops?

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Cover crops have to be the fast growing phenomenon in crop production. While no-till producers were first to the party, the practice is spreading beyond that group. If a dealership isn’t in the game, it may be missing out on a business opportunity, suggests Hans Kok, coordinator, Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative.

Although grower purchases of seed, fertilizer and services have a direct impact on a retailer’s business, purchases of tillage equipment has none. And claims of cover crops reducing fertilizer needs raises red flags for some retailers.

“We had some retailers in Indiana who were worried that cover crops would cut into their fertilizer business,” recalled Kok. “We do have some growers who have dramatically cut back on fertilizer in corn and are still beating county averages. However, the market for cover crop seed and service has put their input providers in a better market than simply selling low-margin fertilizer. Plus, it shores up the retailer/customer relationship.”

It is that existing relationship that puts retailers in such a good position to fulfill customers’ needs and interests when it comes to cover crops, suggests Scott Wohltman, cover crop lead, La Crosse Forage & Turf. “The retailer owns the relationship, has the grower information and knows what is needed on the acres,” he said. “Still, there are problems with retailers who don’t feel comfortable with cover crops and farmers who may not feel comfortable bringing it up in conversation. Yet at the end of the day, growers will buy cover crop seed from someone. It might as well be the local retailer.”

 

START WITH EASY TO HANDLE OPTIONS

Steve Groff, Cover Crop Solutions founder, pointed to a strong correlation between adoption of no-till and adoption of cover crops in terms of how people think. “Each takes time and education, and each has a learning curve,” he said.

Kok pointed to parallels in introduction of the two practices. “When we first promoted no-till, there was a lot of talk about weeds and insect problems that never happened,” he recalled. “Ditto with cover  crops. In both cases, growers need to see to believe.”

In the case of cover crop introduction, Groff advised starting with easy to handle options, such as oats and the trademarked tillage radish he co-developed. “Every farm has its unique challenges, but tillage radish is like a cover crop on training wheels,” he said. “It is easy to see the difference it makes in a field. It leaves virtually no residue in the spring.  

You can mix oats with it in the North or triticale and cereal or annual rye with it in the South. In the spring, the grains keep growing, protect the soil from erosion and slowly release nutrients, while the radish dies back and releases its nutrients early.”

Knowing which cover crop to recommend is getting increasingly complicated as more species and varieties of a species become part of the mix. Wohltman spent 10 years in ag retail and now works with retailers throughout the Midwest. He argues that it is the responsibility of the cover crop seed industry to educate retailers on how to work with cover crops.

“We need to make sure we have trained retailers on what the product does, and not just to take an order,” said Wohltman. “Retailers who integrate cover crops into the conversation sell 100 to 150 percent more seed than those who wait for the farmer to bring it up.”

Retailer Ceres Solutions understands how important the “conversation” is and how important it is to have it early. “We look at cover crops as an opportunity and take a proactive approach,” said Betsy Bower, Ceres Solutions. “We want to help our customers have a plan in place for cover crops just as they do for their cash crops.”

The plan, she explained, is important for grower and retailer. Depending on the grower goals, the cover crop mix may need to be changed or the cash-cropping plan may need to be changed.

“If the grower is intent on planting cover crops early, we may need to recommend a shorter season soybean or, depending on the desired mix, a more careful choice of residual herbicide,” suggested Bower.

 

PLAN AHEAD FOR EQUIPMENT NEEDS

For Ceres, a well laid out plan allows the retail outlet to have the desired seed on hand and have the right equipment in place if application service is requested, whether aerial, spinner spreader or airflow. Matching equipment to the particular seed is vital, suggested Kim Wampler, branch manager, Frichton Branch, Ceres Solutions. With three years of fast growing cover crop business under his belt, he has a good feel for assigning equipment. Triticale and wheat can go out on a spinner, but fluff y seed like annual rye and oats need to be spread with airflow. Small seed like radish and clover work well with fertilizer. How the resulting crop is handled prior to planting also needs to be part of the plan.

“One customer prefers annual rye grass, and that concerns us as it is a bugger to kill in the spring,” said Wampler. “It is amazing how deeply rooted it is and what it does for the soil, but you have to hit it hard with Roundup and hit it early.”

Wampler said he and his crew have learned the hard way how meticulous equipment cleanout has to be. When some rye showed up in wheat fields spread by his crews, it was noticeable, though not the concern it would have been in seed wheat.

“We were probably trying to move too fast and didn’t pay enough attention,” he recalled.

Learning to handle the added pressure of one more service demanded in the fall is the price of added business. Having that early conversation with the grower over what goes where reduces that pressure. However, there will still be the grower who calls the night before he wants seed spread, noted Bower.

“You have to be flexible,” she said. “It has added to the fall workload, but most of our people say it has been a positive change. We need to work through what species or mix is desired and how we need to do it. If we can use fertilizer as a carrier that lets us put on more fertility. The challenge is getting the seed from suppliers when you need it.”

Cover Crop Solutions’ Bristol Mix is a mixture of tillage radish and RootMax annual ryegrass.  

BE READY FOR A LEARNING CURVE

“It all goes back to asking the right questions,” suggested Wohltman. “In recent years, demand has pushed ahead of supply in part because we haven’t had the conversation early enough. Retailers and their customers need to plan ahead with their wholesaler, otherwise we’ll run into problems with supply and quality. Ultimately, we need to provide the seed producer with the right information so they know how many acres to plant.”

Skyrocketing demand combined with a sharp learning curve has created problems with seed origin, cleanliness and even proper labeling. There is a big difference between cereal rye and annual rye, as some have learned the hard way.

Wohltman argued that quality and service expectations for cover crop seed suppliers should be no different than what a retailer expects from a corn or soybean seed supplier.

“They should have guys in the field with you, willing to train, but also to make farm calls with confidence about what a particular cover crop species will do and what it won’t,” he said. “There is risk in bringing in seed and not knowing how much you will move, so you need inventory protection at some level. Your supplier should provide grower training, marketing support and solution-based selling. As a wholesaler, our job isn’t done until the retailer has sold his seed to his customer.”


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