Cover crops catching on

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RENVILLE, Minn. — There are plenty of obstacles keeping farmers from adopting the use of cover crops, but perhaps the biggest is this:

"Peer pressure,'' said Brad Nere, a Renville County corn, soybean and livestock producer, when speaking last week about the challenges he faced.

"You don't want to be a failure in front of your friends. You don't want to be a failure in front of your neighbors who said all along, 'well, that's not going to work.'"

But work it does, a point that Nere and his son-in-law, Kyle VanOverbeke, made to an audience of 75 to 80 June 29 in Renville. He was among seven crop and livestock producers from the area who described their experiences with cover crops at the bequest of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, which is encouraging their use.

Interest in cover crops appears to be growing in the region. Most notable, producers with the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville seed cover crops on roughly 100,000 to 105,000 of the 120,000 acres where they grow sugar beets each year, according to information presented earlier this year by Todd Geselius, vice president of agriculture for the cooperative. The cooperative initially encouraged their use to reduce phosphorus runoff as part of a deal with state regulators. Producers using cover crops discovered economic benefits for the effort, and their use has grown.

It's hard to quantify all of the economic benefits, since many are what Grant Breitkreutz termed "delayed savings.'' He and his wife, Dawn, started experimenting with cover crops in 1998 on their Redwood County crop and livestock operation.

They described how cover crops and a minimum tillage protocol have increased the fertility and water-holding capability of their soil. They have reduced input costs, are realizing improved quality and higher protein contents in their crops, and are taking advantage of the forage value of the cover crops for their livestocks.

Brian Ryberg grows sugar beets, corn and soybeans and has no livestock, but said he still realizes plenty of economic advantages by using cover crops on his farmland in the southeast corner of Renville County and in Sibley County. He knows the peer pressure too.

"Neighbors all think we're crazy, ask a lot of questions about what we're doing,'' he said.

The use of cover crops and conservation tillage means that fields will look messy with residue and green amidst the rows of crops, according to Joel Timm, a Yellow Medicine County corn and soybean producer. "You have to get used to that. Some people are comfortable with that and some aren't,'' he said.

The producers advised those looking at using cover crops to start small. There will be failures, and it takes time to develop the cover crop practices that work best for an individual farm operation, they explained. Breitkreutz said he and his wife persisted despite a series of initial setbacks, and comments from a neighbor warning "it is not going to work.''

An audience member asked if there is anything he would have done differently.

"I wish I would have done it a lot sooner,'' he said.

Holly Hatlewick, manager of the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, explained to attendees how cover crops greatly benefit soil health, improve water infiltration, and reduce erosion and the runoff of sediment and nutrients into our waterways.

"What we want to do is get as close as we can to mimicking nature and still make a profit,'' she said.