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MUSCATINE — By the time the headcount reached 50, the organizers of the Cover Crop Conference realized there's plenty of local interest in what planting a little rye could do for soil.

Michael Vittetoe, a young farmer form Washington, Iowa, was tasked with kicking off the morning with an explanation of cover crops. He said that a quarter of his acreage has rows of cereal rye. While many present were already using cover crops like rye, clover or vetch, several farmers were looking to see what cover crops were all about.

Vittetoe put it in terms of what farmers do well now and what they have to start doing better. He said farmers pick physical environments based on their physical attributes; they are good at finding good land. They are even good at implementing chemicals for more numerous, healthier yields.

“We're managing this chemical stuff with our soil tests and variable rate fertilizers and split nitrogen applications,” Vittetoe said. “We've gotten really good at that. But we really need to look at why we aren't tapping into our inherent nutrient pools and try and get some of that stuff going.”

According Vittetoe, soil contains high concentrations of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Rather than adding them, Vittetoe would like to see farmers finding ways to promote and make use of those nutrients. Enter cover crops.

“You can't say, 'I've got my soil and I've got my plants.' That's not how it works,” Vittetoe said. “It's all one. And you have to think about them that way.”

By planting certain crops between rows before, during and after the season, Vittetoe explained that farm fields could be made better environments for beneficial fungi like Mycorrhizae (AMP for short). During his presentation he zoomed in on a microscopic image of an AMP growing along the tiny root system of a corn plant. As small as the corn roots were, the fungi had even smaller tendrils shooting out into the soil.

“Think of the places these things can get into to access nutrients that your plant roots can't get into,” Vittetoe said.

He said that different mixes of rye, clovers, broad leaves and even legumes could be used for a range of beneficial outcomes: additional livestock grazing, better water quality, weed suppression carbon sequestration, nitrogen fixation and reducing sun spills.

He emphasized that rye alone won’t fix everything. Farmers have to mix and match to find the interseeded cover crop that best fits their field and food.

Teresa Wendt is one of the conference’s organizers. When she is not with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, she farms in Cedar County. She too has been experimenting with cover crops.

“We've only done the cereal rye, but it's been very good,” Wendt said. “The cereal rye provided enough competition to the weeds that we didn't have to use the herbicides.”

Like Vittetoe, Wendt is interested in how cover crops can help develop the biological elements in the soil.

“It's more about the overarching soil health benefits,” Wendt said. “You have the chemical and physical properties of course, but the biology does a whole lot. The cover crops do a lot to feed the biology in ways that cash crops do not.”

The point emphasized over and over again during the conference was experimentation. Farmers need to take what they learned and begin seeing what works on their land.

“Everyone should experiment on their own and figure out what works for them,” Wendt said. “There is just a whole lot of good uses for them.”