Back in the mid to late 1980s, Dan Towery got enthusiastic about cover crops. “Mainly, we were interested in reducing erosion but we were also looking at nitrogen fixation properties that could benefit corn planted into the residue,” he said.
But then, in the summer of 1988, the drought was much like it was this past summer (2012), and as Towery recalls, the results of “not knowing enough about cover crops” created a multiplier effect in the drought’s impact.”In order to give the hairy vetch the maximum time in the ground, to maximize the nitrogen fixation, farmers left the cover crop in the field until the 3rd week of May, when normal corn planting is the 3rd week of April.
“The vetch sucked too much moisture from the ground and the drought was made worse because of that decision,” Towery said. I said then: ‘I’m not promoting cover crops anymore!’”
But times and attitudes changed with the addition of annual ryegrass as a cover crop alternative in the early 90s.By the late 90s, Towery was working at the Conservation Tillage Information Center, promoting no-till mostly. Early results from Mike Plumer’s work with farmers in Illinois were producing promising results with annual ryegrass.
It wasn’t long before Towery was a believer again. In fact, he was an advisor working with the Nature Conservancy on a watershed enhancement project in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where farmers were paid to use annual ryegrass to prevent field runoff.
“Look at the change in acceptance since then,” Towery said. “From a time where we paid farmers $500 to plant 10 acres of cover crops (1998) to now, when we’re experiencing a shortage of annual ryegrass and other cover crop seed, because of the demand.”
Towery said that education has bee a key element in the popularity of cover crops. “And, an important element continues to be the caution about use of cover crops….you have to be willing to be a good manager of the cover crop, no matter which one you choose.”