Tim Recker and Brent Renner stand on opposite sides of an invisible, agricultural fault line, separated by a deep divide over the efficacy of cover crops. Growing corn and soybeans in the black soil of northern Iowa, the men are brother farmers in most respects, separated by 125 miles across three counties. Remarkably well-spoken and keen on agronomic detail, both run tight, efficient operations, but their rapport ends where cover crops begin.
Gather a large group of farmers under one roof and throw in a cover crop bone. The divergence of opinion is marked, the passion of supporters is palpable, and the discontent of skeptics is striking. Justified or illegitimate, discord over cover crops often reaches a level of rancor seldom matched by other facets of agriculture. Cover crop supporters are confronted with issues related to costs versus measurable returns, while skeptics are faced with pointed questions over soil health benefits and long-term gains.
By blood, Recker, 56, is a tillage farmer, and has turned soil black almost his entire life. In August 2012, the northwest Iowa grower pulled the handbrake on the past and sprinkled 200 acres with tillage radish and oats. The radishes reached an anemic 2” and Recker paid from the pocket. In 2013, he tried again with the same covers and experienced almost the same dismal results.
With tillage radish and oats, Recker was using the wrong cover choice and incorrect planting method to match his ground. In fall 2014, he drilled cereal rye and hasn’t looked back, going from strength to strength in cover crop success: “I need something to overwinter to help deal with erosion from spring rains. I followed 400 acres of corn with rye in the fall of 2017, and my goal is to have all my corn acreage followed by rye.”
Located in Fayette County, almost a three-hour drive northeast of Des Moines, Recker uses cover crops to chase soil health, erosion control, diminished compaction and nutrient retention. He doesn’t have cattle as a parachute to offset costs. “The only livestock I have are the microbes below my feet and those are the ones I’m trying to feed.”
Recker plants cereal rye on acres headed into soybeans, but 2018 is a corn exception. “I’m six years in and learned with beans. This season is my first to plant some corn into rye and I’m in a new learning phase. I see guys getting pushed into covers with bad advice and people passing out money and saying, ‘Go plant covers.’ No, it takes a serious management technique.”
Cereal rye averages $9 to $13 per bushel, but Recker meters seed and only plants a half-bushel (.5” depth), slashing per acre costs in half. Including seed, he estimates a total $10 per acre in planting costs. In spring, he adds glyphosate to scheduled spray passes, basically tacking on another $5 per acre. Last, Recker hammers armyworms with pyrethroids: $2 per acre. All tallied, cover crops cost him less than $20 per acre. More significantly, what does Recker get in return?
Since 2014, his soybean yields have jumped 5-7 bu. every year (excluding a negligible bump in 2017), an increase he attributes entirely to cover crops. Even bigger, according to Recker, is a tremendous leap in erosion control. “The difference is awesome. No more scraping with a Caterpillar all over my operation for a week. By itself, that sold me on covers. No more moving soil or rebuilding waterways.”
“This is a new crop in a tight weather window. Therefore it takes an additional management level, combined with the right crop choice according to your farm,” he continues. “Some farmers think covers won’t work this far north, but I’m gaining high yield bumps and still taking care of my soil. Why wouldn’t I keep doing this?”
Renner, 42, farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in northcentral Iowa, 40 miles south of the Minnesota border. Renner cares deeply about water quality and has implemented cover crops—but struggles to see genuine return on investment. Adding another crop without a solid assurance is a very big ask, according to the Hancock County grower: “I’m one voice of many farmers that feel this way. Budgets are so tight and there is no room for maneuvering.”
A member of the Iowa Soybean Association, Renner’s skepticism is based on the practicalities of farming, not ideology. “I want covers to work, but there’s not much money in corn and beans, and adding a practice that loses money is not the answer, at least not on my farm.”
On many operations, cover crop risks outweigh rewards, Renner contends. Terminate in time or jeopardize a cash crop. Despite doubts, Renner planted his first cover crop in fall 2017, aerial seeding ryegrass on 70 acres of corn severely damaged by mid-July hail, and taking advantage of a government program matching seed costs and planting. “Regardless of what I think, maybe I’ll be forced to do this in the future. I’ve seen growers do well with cover crops and I’m pulling for them, but that doesn’t change reality: Weighed against my weather and geography, big acreage cover crops are loaded with risks.”
(For more, see Cover Crop Bandwagon Frustrates Farmers)
Case in progress, according to Renner: A cool, wet spring prevented termination on Renner’s ryegrass, leaving him with 70 acres of soybeans in danger of a ryegrass takeover. Renner is one of a small number of farmers in Hancock County even attempting to grow cover crops. “Covers can serve big-time for erosion control, grazing, weed control, and soil health, but I don’t know about right here. There is a feeling of frustration from the farmers I know. We see a constant cover crop push from all sources and it creates frustration because it doesn’t match up with our farm realities.”
Renner partially attributes the cover crop movement to concerns over water quality, an issue he addresses with gravity: “It’s imperative the public knows we care deeply about water quality, but the answer doesn’t start and end with covers. Buffers and better focused CRP can play a role. Covers are a piece of the puzzle, but only with a realization that they’re not the only answer on every farm.”
In the southeast corner of Minnesota, a half-mile from the Iowa border and 10 miles from the Mississippi River, Myron Sylling, 50, farms 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans (alongside his brother, Mikal) on steep, rolling ground. Roughly 80% of his land is considered highly erodible and until recently, he fought a losing battle with soil movement each spring.
In 2012, he borrowed a neighbor’s drill and patched erosion spots (15 acres) with 2 bu. per acre of cereal rye. Living roots kept Sylling’s dirt in place, far surpassing protection from traditional residue cover. Buoyed by the results, he went big the next year, aerial seeding 300 acres of cereal rye: Almost zero growth and total failure. “On my farm, I won’t mess with aerial seeding again,” he says. “Rain timing is critical and I can’t make it rain.”
Disappointed by seed from on high, Sylling went low and bought a drill in 2014, with 300 more acres in cereal rye. He was amazed by the positive results. Five years later, Sylling has almost 100% of his acreage in cover crops.
He estimates a $19 cover crop investment per acre. “We plant Roundup Ready beans and no longer need a residual herbicide with good cover crop growth. That means only two applications of glyphosate are necessary most years and I save $15 per acre on my beans. Ragweed and marestail have been virtually eliminated. In fact, we’re seriously considering no post-application sprays in corn or soybeans because weed pressure is so low.”
Sylling’s soybean yields have remained consistent, but corn yields have taken a major leap forward. In 2012-2014, he averaged 200 bu. corn. In 2017, he averaged 237 bu. corn, including 250 bu. per acre across corn-on-corn ground. “My corn yields keep climbing and I attribute the difference to faster residue breakdown of nutrients.”
“At a minimum, I benefit from erosion control, extra bushels, and weed control,” he says. “There is a clear dollar return with cover crops on my operation.”
However, Sylling is plainspoken and doesn’t sugarcoat the management dance accompanying cover crops. The fall of 2017 was a heavy logistical challenge filled with pitfalls. After a late harvest and early freeze, Sylling got 800 acres drilled and established (contrasted with almost 100% coverage in 2016). He frost-seeded in March, over the top with a fertilizer spreader, putting oats and rape seed on 60 acres going to non-GMO corn, and placing cereal rye on 200 acres going to soybeans.
A cold, late spring kept the cover in check, but after corn planting, the oats germinated. “That may have been a waste of money. I will yield-check this fall and see if I took a hit, because by the time we did a post-emergence pass, the oats were a foot tall. These problems are part of covers and you have to be fluid. You can’t follow hard cover crop steps because nature dictates the pace.”
In fall of 2018, Sylling plans on drilling cereal rye across all his acres, and possibly blending in oats as a fungal builder after soybeans. If harvest weather doesn’t cooperate, he eyes two other planting windows. “I can seed covers in mid-November when the ground is almost frozen. I’ve done it in prior years and it grew. If necessary, I’ll frost-seed in March again. You have to be patient, but if you want covers to work, there is a way.”
David Kruse owns and manages 640 acres of corn and soybeans in northwest Iowa’s Clay County. He is also the president of CommStock Investments, a commodity brokerage, located in Royal. He passes 40 miles of farmland on a daily commute from home to work, and on winter days, sees the consistency of bare dirt broken by a single, solitary cover crop field.
Kruse is a cover crop agnostic, and approaches the possibility with caution. “This is not southern Iowa and we face logistical issues that are plain. Every operation has limited management resources. The question is where do you want to allocate those resources?”
“From my perspective, covers require significant management in the fall and the spring. Everyone has certain resources and so where will you devote them? It seems people in the pro-cover crop side treat these issues with simple answers, but circumstances are very complicated and differ on each operation.”
(For more, see Cover Crop Bandwagon Frustrates Farmers)
Kruse acknowledges soil health benefits and yield bumps, but contends the positives remain burdened by hanging questions. “Right now, with so many unknowns, covers aren’t practical on my ground. I would have to make serious management changes to my current agronomic practices to adapt to cover crops. I’m trying to evaluate if the benefit is worth it. I’m open to learn, but I’m a skeptic.”
“In my area, there is very low interest and very low adoption of covers. I’ve seen experiments that were failures, and no matter the degree of loss, somebody wants to blame the farmer. What about the weather or geography or particular farming situation? The default is to blame the farmer and protect the reputation of covers at all costs.”
For Kruse, the cover crop issue is primarily tied to public relations and water quality, and secondarily related to farming benefits. “The agriculture industry wanted to respond to water issues and somehow cover crops ended up being a version of political correctness. In my opinion, cover use should continue so experience can be gained. I’m the first guy who wants to see the results. However, the results so far in my 40-mile stretch are not encouraging.”
Cover crops are a site-specific solution contingent on concrete goals, according to Nick Goeser. As interim director of the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) and vice president of Production and Sustainability at the National Corn Growers Association, Goeser, 35, urges farmers to begin cover crop considerations with an overall economic assessment. “I have never been on a farm when we haven’t found opportunity during an economic assessment. Where are you allocating inputs, making money, losing money or using the best business tools across the board?”
Next, Goeser, advises growers to create a plan to test for cover crop success based on an entire agronomic system, year over year. “You’ve got to have soil sample data as a baseline picture, and aerial imagery and yield monitor data all play a role to point toward site-specific economic evaluations. See where you truly stand before cover crops, in order to truly measure after cover crops.”
“Contact us at the Soil Health Partnership and we’ll help with goals, economic assessments and how covers can fit. We’ll help take a hard look at what works and what doesn’t.”
Goeser believes some skeptics could benefit from improvements in tracking how cover crops genuinely benefit an operation. SHP, according to Goeser, is putting cover crop economics under a microscope and finding consistently positive trends. “We’re very close to publishing real-world findings that show measurable cover crop positives after just two to three years of use.”
Regardless of farming location, a financially beneficial cover crop fit is possible, Goeser contends. Yet, he advocates for a cautionary approach: “I grew up in agriculture and this is a tough, tough time. It’s very difficult to remain in business year after year. Cover crops have to be very site-specific—just like seed placement and fertility management—and targeted to specific goals.”
An hour southeast of Des Moines, Mike Jackson, 35, grows corn and soybeans near Oskaloosa. Along with his father, Mark, he’s been growing covers for four years—initially as an attempt to combat erosion. In 2014, Jackson aerial seeded 100 acres of cereal rye with sketchy results. He now drills cereal rye directly behind the combine.
Jackson says cover crop success boils down to management and education, regardless of the size and availability of weather windows. “We’re only about 10 days ahead of northern Iowa. The claims of the cover skeptics are partially valid, but that’s where the beauty of cereal rye comes in. It’s an amazing plant and works anywhere.”
Jackson estimates cover crop costs at $30 per acre, but says his corn yield has climbed 10 bu. per acre in the third year of cover crop use. “It takes several years before you see yield returns. One big immediate difference is instant erosion control and nutrient sequestration. That saves me a lot of money.”
He planted 300 acres of cover crops in 2015; 600 in 2016; and blanketed his acreage in fall 2017 with 2,000 acres of cover crops (90% rye; 10% oats). “Some farmers are understandably scared to not get an instant return, but it’s coming and doesn’t take long.”
Tim Palmer, president-elect of the National Association of Conservation Districts, grows corn, hay and soybeans in Truro, 40 miles south of Des Moines. Palmer, 62, utilizes terraces, waterways, filter strips, ponds, rotational grazing (beef cattle) and cover crops: cereal rye, oats, triticale and wheat. Beyond erosion control and nutrient retention, he uses covers as extra cattle feed in fall and spring. Significantly, Palmer cuts costs by raising his own cover seed.
By necessity, cover crop management is learned through trial and error, according to Palmer. “Wherever you’re located, don’t expect success without choosing the right cover for your goal,” he advises. “My covers are a means to water quality and soil health. That soil health leads right to my pocketbook.”
In addition to water quality and soil health, Palmer sees carbon storage as a cover crop incentive. “What about the amount of money the international market is willing to put into storing carbon? That information hasn’t reached farm level recognition. For conservation practices like covers, I believe there will be a payment down the road, and it could be a direct payment to producers that are doing these things.”
Seeds of Discontent
According to Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Evaluation Report, approximately 760,000 acres of cover crops were planted in the Hawkeye State in 2017: “If we project the 2017 ratio of new and existing cover crop acres to Iowa as a whole, we can predict that there were ~760,000 total acres of cover crops planted statewide in 2017, compared to ~623,000 in 2016.”
State of Iowa data records 30,622,371 acres of farmland as of 2012. If both numbers (760,000/30,622,371) are on target, approximately 2% of Iowa farmland is in cover crops.
Right or wrong, cover crops pull a sidecar of emotion for supporters and detractors. Few issues in agriculture elicit the excitement or discontent displayed in grower attitudes toward cover crops. What drives the discord between the two sides?
“There’s sometimes an attitude of condemnation for growers who don’t support covers. I think the politics attached to the water quality movement have tainted common sense,” Renner explains. “Move north in Iowa and watch risks rise as you see different topographies and weather.”
“A buzz word we’ve heard lots about in the last decade is sustainability,” he continues. “It’s impossible for me to stay sustainable if I can’t make a profit. Every dollar I spend has heavy consequences and if I don’t make a profit I won’t survive.”
Stress and strain play a role, Palmer notes. “Discontent comes to the surface when people on both sides say the other side doesn’t care. There’s so much pressure right now on everyone in agriculture and we’re all still learning about covers. There is comfort in knowing what you’ve done in the past works, but changes are coming and we have to be prepared.”
Silling says dollar-loss leaves a deep wound: “I’ve asked myself where the anger over cover crops comes from. For cover farmers, they’ve seen them work and the passion builds. On the negative side, farmers have tried and gotten bad results, mainly due to poor advice. When something fails and costs you money, that experience sticks tight.”
Silver-bullet promises generate ill will with many producers, according to Goeser. “Farmers feel stress and start questioning, rightfully so, when they hear blanket recommendations. Covers need a lot of healthy skepticism, because farmers still have to go to the bank and get operation loans. For many growers, a practical approach to covers will be site-specific.”
Jackson believes farmers always cling too tightly to what has worked in the past: “The disconnect between the two sides is discouraging. As farmers, we’re very prideful and opinionated about what we do for a living, even to the point of hurting ourselves.”
Kruse keeps his powder dry, but he’s not optimistic. “I’ve farmed 45 years and I’d describe what I sometimes see between the two sides as raw. We’re told if we don’t use covers we’re not correct or somehow less as farmers. I’m not against covers, but I’m a borderline guy.”
Plainspoken, Recker maintains a blunt perspective. “People get upset over covers on both sides, no question. I see the anger and I can’t tell anyone covers are better for their ground, but I can say they totally work on my operation and I’m going to keep at it. I’ve changed my farm with covers and gained higher yields. I believe other guys can change too, but I have nothing against someone who doesn’t, and I won’t stand for ostracizing somebody because they don’t like covers. There is no government mandate and there better not be. When the day a cover crop mandate arrives, I’ll be the first one fighting it.”
Still skeptical, Renner questions whether cover crops will outpace management issues on his farm. “For water quality, soil health, and weed control, I’m a farmer that wants covers to work. Just don’t condemn me because my operation can’t afford the risk of cash crop failure.”For more, see: