Cover Crop Residue Tour

Jonathan and I went on a little farm tour a few weeks ago, and stopped to check on the fields with cover crop residues. We use oats, which we spread on the field with a spin spreader, and Tillage Radish, which is planted with the row crop planter. This past fall had perfect growing conditions for the cover crops, so they grew really well.

We have a three crop rotation on our farm. Each year one-third of our acres are planted into corn, one-third is soybeans, and one-third is a small grain such as wheat. After the wheat is harvested, we apply hog manure to that land for the corn to use the following year. After the manure is incorporated, we plant our cover crop. The root systems of the oats and Tillage Radish are very different, but work in harmony to improve soil health. The oats stimulate microorganisms in the soil that digest the organic matter making the nutrients available for the corn to use in the spring. Oats are also good at suppressing weeds.  The Tillage Radish tap root breaks up compacted soil, and creates water channels that help the soil to hold water instead of the water running over the top. Both the oats and Tillage Radish are good at storing nutrients from the manure in their stems and roots, which are released when the organic matter is worked into the soil in the spring.

oat cover crop

Here you can see how the stems from the oats formed a thick layer over the soil. This field had no wind erosion this past spring, even though we have had some extremely windy days. The soil underneath was cooler and wetter than our fields without a cover crop.

cover crop finding radish

We were looking for some Tillage Radish residue and the holes they leave behind. The end rows in this field only had Tillage Radish planted, due to timing issues. It also makes for a good experiment to have just the radish in areas that typically suffer from compaction issues. We found a few rows where the tops of the radish were above ground, so we could look at how they decompose.
cover crop pulling radish

You can see how Jonathan was able to tease the radish out of the ground. The top of the radish was exposed through the winter, and was a little spongy when squeezed.

cover crop decaying root

You can see how part of the root has decomposed, yet some remained. This was the part just under the soil line. It was much softer than the top of the plant.

cover crop tillage radish depth test

Here I was trying to see how deep the root channel was. I couldn’t touch the bottom. The root channels vary in size depending on how close the radishes were planted, and how large they grew.

cover crop radish hole

This hole wasn’t as big in diameter as the other one, but was very deep. When it rains, these holes give the water a place to go instead of the rain just running over the top of the soil. It is one reason we use our corn planter to plant the Tillage Radish in rows. When we plant corn over the same rows in the spring, the corn benefits from the moisture held in the soil.

Using a cover crop has become an important part of our rotation. We are seeing the benefits in increased soil organic matter, better water holding capacity, and better erosion control. We are also seeing benefits to the environment in wildlife activity (deer love the tillage radish), water holding capacity, and erosion control. A true win win!

Is Water Quality a Red Herring in the Quest for Land Control?

Water Quality. We hear the term in the news, in press conferences, and in editorials surrounding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s proposals to regulate land use primarily in agricultural areas. What is water quality, and what does it have to do with land control?

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Rule, which would redefine what the term “waters of the U.S.” means, has a host of issues. However, the way they are selling their proposed change is in the name of water quality. Thing is, their rule change has nothing to do with water quality, since all the waters in question are already covered by the Clean Water Act. What it does talk about at length, is jurisdiction. The EPA thinks it can do a better job at implementing the provisions of the Clean Water Act than the states can. I don’t know about your state, but Minnesota is doing a great job at identifying impaired waters, establishing a game plan, and achieving it. Personally, I think states, who involve people who live and work in the watershed, are much more effective at protecting water quality than Washington bureaucrats who have probably never set foot in the watershed they are trying to regulate.

So, what is the point of redefining what constitutes a water of the United States if it isn’t going to change the national water quality standards outlined in the Clean Water Act? Could it be power? Control over agricultural lands? The Rule would broaden the scope of the EPA, and basically puts them in the business of regulating a farmer’s activities, which is not what Congress intended. If your land happens to be within the boundaries of the newly defined significant nexus, you may need a permit from the EPA to do ordinary farming practices. Farmers are already working towards the water quality goals of the watersheds their land is in. On our farm, we have taken advantage of voluntary programs, and federal farm programs that encourage soil and water conservation. We have planted marginal lands into Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, planted living snow fences, and use cover crops. Soil samples, plant tissue samples, and manure samples are tested to determine the correct rate of manure application each fall. We are doing what we can to meet or exceed the standards set for the watershed our land is in.

Redefining the Waters of the United States in the name of water quality is deceiving…a red herring. The EPA is simply looking for more ways to control what happens on the land. Land owned by farmers and landowners who are already complying with CWA standards.

farmers care about soil, water, and wildlife

Water quality has also been a hot topic on the state level in a few states lately. In Minnesota, Governor Mark Dayton has asked for a 50 foot riparian buffer strip along all rivers, streams, and ditch banks and everywhere water flows “most of the time”. Sounds good on the surface, but like the EPA’s WOTUS rule, the Governor’s plan has some major flaws.

Farmers are not opposed to buffers. In the right locations, at the appropriate width designed for that particular location, they can be very effective. One-size-fits-all makes no sense if the goal is improving water quality. However, the news media has been blasting agriculture for not doing their part to improve water quality, and is telling the public that we need these buffer strips to achieve water quality. When I read the proposed Senate and House bills, I was puzzled. What exactly is this water quality they are talking about? Under the Purpose of the bill, it lists “protecting water from runoff and erosion; stabilizing soils, shores, and banks; and provide aquatic and wildlife habitat.” (HF1534, MN House of Representatives) Is that what water quality is? If that is the state’s definition of water quality, we can achieve that in without a mandatory, one-size-fits-all 50 foot buffer strip.



One of the Governor’s reasons for the need for the 50 foot buffer strip is the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s latest report on the Missouri River Basin in Southwest Minnesota. As I was reading the full report, a few things stood out. Governor Dayton kept referring to how bad the water quality is, but the same report that had the media blasting agriculture for all the water woes also contained some positive news. Two of the major watersheds had improved water quality over the past 10 years. Pipestone Creek and the Rock River both showed decreases in Total Suspended Solids and Total Phosphorus, two areas of assessment that is mentioned many times in the MPCA’s report.

pipestone creek water quality improvement

rock river water quality improvement

The other thing that I noticed is that there is no water quality standard for Total Phosphorus in streams, and there are no Nitrite/Nitrate standards in streams or lakes. When reading the chemistry results from the tested waters – where there were water chemistry reports – there were numbers present, but no parameters for TP or Nitrite/Nitrogen. If there are no water quality standards, or water quality goals, how can we know if we have achieved the desired result?

The idea of no water quality standard or goal in the proposed bill was brought up at the Governor’s Buffer Strip Session in Worthington, Minnesota. I was happy the gentleman asked the question, since I had noticed the lack of goals in the bill, but just thought I was missing a point. That question raises another one. If there are no Total Phosphorus standards for streams, how are we to know when we have reached an achievable goal? Is it the historic levels dating back before the European settlements? What if those numbers were historically high, even before the prairies were turned in to farmland? Are we just going to be chasing an unachievable number?

Spring Lake, near Prior Lake recently made a request to the EPA to change the standard for Total Phosphorus from 40 ppb to 60 ppb after a lake sediment core was studied, and it found that Spring Lake historically was high in Total Phosphorus. So, if TP was high before the land surrounding Spring Lake was turned into farmland, is it agriculture solely to blame? I don’t think so.

It remains that there are no true water quality standards set out in Governor Dayton’s Buffer Strip bill. Even when farmers are accused of not doing their part to improve water quality, the MPCA’s own documents show otherwise. So, if there is no true water quality standard in the bill, using water quality as the selling point is deceiving…a red herring. What is it that the Governor truly wants? More land.

In December, the Governor held a Pheasant Summit to address the decline in the pheasant population in Minnesota. It was there that the first mentions of a 50 foot buffer strip plan were heard. When the Governor announced his plan a few weeks later, it was not met with much enthusiasm. In January, the buffer strip idea was introduced as a way to increase water quality. Water quality is an emotional subject, and has been used as a rallying cry for the Governor’s plan to put the Department of Natural Resources in charge of those 50 foot buffers on privately owned land. In the name of water quality, farmers have been raked through the mud and have been characterized as being uncaring polluters. As mentioned above, we do many things to improve water and soil conservation on our farm. We care about water quality just as much as our friends in town do. We drink the water from our wells, we bathe in it, we use the water for recreation, and we depend on the rain for our crops. Jonathan and I are not unique in that aspect.

If the EPA or the Governor were truly more interested in water quality than control of property rights, they would support incentives for farmers, businesses and non-farmer land owners that allow for an individualized approach that takes into account the unique features of that property. Both entities need to quit deceiving the public, and call their proposals what they really are: A quest for the control of the landowner’s private property.

Water Quality – Don’t Put all Your Eggs in the Buffer Basket

Buffer strip

In January, Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton announced a plan to require a 50 foot buffer strip along all rivers, streams, and drainage ditches in the state. Mandating a set buffer strip width for all of those waterways means topography, soil types, and surrounding land use will no longer be determining factors in buffer strip width. This one-size-fits-all approach won’t improve water quality like we’ve been told it will.
The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services) published a report in 2000 that talked about the different types of water control features that would help trap soil, nutrient, and pesticides, which would help to improve water quality. In the report, they stated how using multiple methods was more effective than a single method for controlling water flow, water filtration, and pesticide trapping. Many improvements have been made in the 15 years since this report was published. Let me highlight a few for you.

Cover crops

The use of cover crops is a relatively new trend in our area. Cover crops are a blend of plants grown for their ability to prevent soil erosion, manage water and water quality, suppress weeds, and hold soil nutrients in place. We plant our cover crops right after our wheat is harvested which will give the plants enough time to grow well and be more effective. Other farmers will use airplanes to spread the seed before their row crop is harvested. In the 14 years that we have been growing cover crops, we have experimented with different seed mixes until we found what works best on our soil. The combination of tillage radishes and oats that we use provides two very different types of plants which is also beneficial for wildlife. The deer graze on the tillage radish leaves, and pheasants use the taller oats for cover. This is a win-win for water quality, soil health, and wildlife.

Field Mapping

Global Positioning Systems (GPS), broadband internet, and computers in combines and tractors have made it possible to create accurate maps of every field. These maps are uploaded onto a computer, where we can then work with our local agronomist to determine what recipe each field needs to grow the crop that will be planted in it. Each recipe will be different for each field, depending on what we will be growing, the results of our soil and plant tissue tests, and the yield data from the year before. Our corn and wheat both need manure applied to supply the nutrients that the plants need to grow well. However, they do not require the same amount of manure, so we follow the recipes to make sure we are not using too much manure on the fields. We like to use cover crops as part of our recipe for our corn fields, since the tillage radish helps to keep the nutrients from the manure where the corn roots will be. This combination of conservation methods works great over an entire field to keep soil and nutrients from eroding, and doesn’t just rely on the last 50 feet before a water way.

Precision Equipment

Fifteen years ago, I never imagined all of the things computers and information technology could do for agriculture. Of course, at that time, I was still using a Nokia cell phone with an external antenna, and the iPhone was still 7 years away from being released. Now, besides most farmers having smart phones, there are computers in tractors, fertilizer spreaders, and sprayers. These computers allow farmers to use their field recipes as they are driving up and down the fields, many times driving with the aid of GPS auto guidance systems. The Precision Planting computer we have in our tractor helps our planter keep the seed planting depth at the perfect level through the variations in the firmness of the soil, varies the amount of seeds per acre according to soil type, and will shut off boxes at the end of the rows or where the rows overlap on curves so we don’t waste seed. We work with our Precision Planting Specialist to make sure our recipes are entered into to the computer correctly, and that the equipment is communicating with the computer. Fertilizer spreaders with variable rate technology are used by our friends. Their field maps and recipes are loaded into the computer, and the fertilizer is spread where it is needed. A similar system is used with sprayers when applying pesticides. The field map can be set up to avoid spraying in certain sensitive areas, and to avoid overlapping the spray with auto shut off valves. We don’t use fertilizer spreaders or sprayers on our farm, so I would encourage you to go to your favorite farmer or The Farmer’s Life if you have questions.

Flexibility is needed

On our farm, we have planted some buffer strips with the help of our NRCS Conservationist and local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). On one ditch where the ditch bank rises to the edge we have a very narrow grass buffer, which is all that is needed. We are also using cover crops, field mapping, and precision equipment. This multi-pronged approach to water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat is a better approach than a mandate of every river, stream, and drainage ditch needing a 50 foot buffer. Some ditches or streams do not need a grass buffer, while some could benefit from one that is greater than 50 feet. Every farmer should be able to figure out what conservation practices will work best on their farm, and should be able to change those practices when needed. Farmers want to be able to hand down their land to the next generation. To do that, we need to care for the soil and water in the best ways we can. Putting all of our water quality eggs into one basket isn’t the best way to achieve that.
To read more on how this buffer strip proposal would affect Minnesotans, I highly recommend that you read this post by Sara Hewitt.

cover crop of tillage radish and oats
A field planted with a tillage radish and oat cover crop