TAINTER CREEK - Adam Kramer of Black Sand Granary in Patch Grove was the featured presenter at the Thursday, Feb. 25 meeting of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council. Kramer has run the successful cover crop program, piloted by Crawford County Land Conservation Department for the last two years.
Kramer’s presentation delivered to the watershed council was entitled ‘New Tools & Cultural Practices: Continuous Cover and Extended Rotation.’ Kramer has received recognition for his innovative efforts in recent years as 2019 Iowa Certified Crop Consultant of the Year, and 2020 International Certified Crop Consultant of the Year.
“At Black Sand Granary, our focus is on development of learning and implementation strategies,” Kramer explained. “We have developed a demonstration group on several farms, and we are learning together.”
Kramer said that overall the group’s focus is on improving soil health. Improving water quality, he said, will be a collateral effect of a successful focus on soil health.
“In the Driftless Area, our largest resource concern is water erosion and the way that it contributes to the hypoxia or dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” Kramer said. “The dead zone is caused by freshwater discharge and nutrient loading into the Mississippi River basin, which drains about 41 percent of land in the United States. In that basin, we have seen a marked increase in nitrogen and phosphorous non-point pollution.”
Upland water erosion, according to Kramer, can best be fought though decreasing tillage, growing more perennial vegetation on the landscape, planting cover crops annually following row crops, and adding small grains into the farm rotation.
“Economically and with the weather, farmers have not had an easy time of it in recent years,” Kramer said. “When it comes to these kinds of practices, they either don’t have the expertise, they don’t have the resources to experiment, and/or they don’t see the economic benefit from it.”
Strategies to improve soil health include continuous cover, no-till, planting green, variable rate fertilizer using precision equipment, extending rotations, and cutting inputs without sacrificing yields. Kramer’s facility also includes a shop where his group works on retrofitting machinery to try to adapt to new practices.
“We have been using one-acre demonstration plots on my home farm to try out different things before we roll them out to the field,” Kramer said. “After using the plots for three years, in the fourth year we experimented with planting green.”
Kramer told the group that when he bought his farm, he knew that he would have a variety of challenges related to his fields. Some of his acres were impoverished in various nutrients, there was a lot of compaction, and some of the acres in production were yielding no profit at all.
He told the group that one of the first things he had done was to take the less profitable acres around the tree lines out of production. He planted a 60-foot perennial prairie strip around the base of the ridgetop woodlands, and reports that this had almost immediately improved his overall profitability.
To fix compaction and increase water infiltration, Kramer says that his number one strategy has been in planting of multi-species cover crops. He emphasized that when multiple species are planted, there is an enhanced improvement in the soil microbiology, specifically in the increase of mycorrhizal fungi, which promote optimal use of nutrients and significant improvements in soil structure.
Corn and beans
Kramer described some of the different approaches his group has used with cover crops, with corn and with soybeans.
“In a field that I’m going to plant in corn, I had flown on a multi-species mix in the fall,” Kramer said. “In the spring of 2019, which was very wet, I had a very small window to terminate the covers and plant – just a couple of days. I terminated right before I planted, and it worked great.”
Kramer said he has found that it is best to terminate cover crops very close to planting. He says that he has had better luck with germination if the terminated covers are not actively decomposing right at the time of germination. He says that with an aggressive approach, he can sometimes squeeze in two cover crop seasons – fall planted, and then after corn silage harvest.
According to Kramer, a completely different approach is required with beans. He qualified that by reminding everyone that in addition, every year will present unique challenges.
“I have had luck with planting soybeans into a living green cover – in fact I think soybeans kind of like it,” Kramer said. “Last year, when I planted my beans green, after I planted, you couldn’t even see where I had driven across the field to plant. Having that living cover on the field means that it is infiltrating excess moisture, and by maintaining continuous cover, I have virtually eliminated wind and water erosion on my acres.”
2021 cover crops
Kramer told the group that with the aerial cover crop program, he has been working every year to whittle down the costs through decreases in the application rates for seeds.
“In 2021, we are looking at 45 lbs. rye, 55 lbs. spring barley, and two pounds medium red clover per acre,” Kramer explained. “I only use seeds with a high germination rate, even if they cost a little more, because what is key is to get as much germination as quickly as possible to get the crop established while there are still enough heating degree days left in the season.”
For this reason, Kramer explained, he has opted for rye and barley seeds that have a 98 percent germination rate. He said that clover will grow anywhere, and is very easy to establish. He said that with establishing cover crops in the fall, timing is critical, and that is the prime advantage of flying on the seed while the cash crop is still in the field.
As far as what the best options for fall-planted cover crops are, Kramer acknowledged that rye is still the best option for farmers in our latitude. He said that a combination of rye, barley and clover works very well. He said that Australian winter peas will survive down to ten degrees Fahrenheit. Winter wheat he says is a little slower to germinate than rye, and winter barley is a little bit faster.
As far as financing for planting cover crops, Kramer cited the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds as being the way that a lot of producers have begun planting cover crops.
“EQIP will fund three years of planting cover crops,” Kramer said. “Some worry that after the EQIP funding stops, farmers will stop planting the covers, but over all the years of the aerial cover crop program, we’ve only had one producer that dropped out after the EQIP funding was over.”
Berent Froiland asked Kramer if the best way for producers interested in working with Kramer’s aerial seeding program would be to band together to create a block of acres that would make expansion into the area worthwhile.
“Yes, that would be the best approach to take,” Kramer said. “We are already serving producers in northern Crawford County and southern Vernon County, so adding more acres would help to make it more efficient to service this area.”
Kramer seemed proud of USDA statistics regarding the aerial cover crop program he has taken over from Crawford County. In total, through the program, since 2014, cover crops have been planted on a total of 37,388 acres. Planting those cover crops has resulted in saving of 78,404 tons of soil, which would equal 3,917 truckloads.
In 2014, the program started with 1,855 acres planted, and 3,895 tons of soil saved. In 2020, it had grown to 12,003 acres planted and 25,200 tons of soil saved.
For those interested in learning more about the aerial cover crop program, Kramer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 608-412-5659.
Benefits of covers
According to Kramer, cover crops and increased diversity fit the farming systems in the Driftless Region. They provide the following benefits:
• Increase in soil organic matter
• Increase in water retention in the soil
• Decrease in soil erosion
• Resilient soils that can handle management traffic
• Better planting dates and yield expectations
• Reduction in use of herbicides
• Increased fertilizer efficiency
• Increased plant-available nutrition• Increased yield (eventually)