The advice about using cover crops for the first time is almost written in stone: “Start with a small parcel.”
John Werries, a third generation farmer from Chapin, Illinois, had a few things going for him that allowed him to skip the advice entirely. He talked to some long time cover croppers, he had done a lot of studying and had attended educational forums on cover crop management, and he wasn’t getting any younger. “I was 65 when I started cover crops. I may not have had a decade to experiment on a small scale,” he said.
Together, John, his son Dean and their neighbor, Andy Shireman, formed a cover crop business, Chapin Cover Crops. They went in on the purchase of a 40’ air seeder and air cart, and proceeded in 2012 to plant the entire Werries 3800 acres, over 2000 of Shireman’s acres and 1700 acres of custom seeding.
“You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect year,” he said. “We got an early start, drilling the annual ryegrass (Aug. 22) right behind the combine, and we were done with seeding the acreage by the end of September. After the first seeding, we got about four inches of gentle rain in the span of two days. I’m a private pilot and so it was a joy when, some weeks later, I flew over the property and saw all that solid, dense green!”
John’s land is almost all in corn. He strip tills and so the cover crop was primarily an aide in reducing erosion, especially on the half of his acres that are in rolling hills. “I just hate the idea of erosion,” he said.
The spring of 2013 was a very wet one, with nearly 15 inches in April and May. “I was so impressed with the annual ryegrass,” he said. There was some runoff but absolutely no erosion.”
The other benefit he saw immediately was in corn production. “In 2012, it was a drought year and we had a ‘whole-farm’ average yield of 133 bu/ac,” he recalled. “That was the worst corn harvest since 1988. But a year later, the average in 2013 was 234 bu/ac…a whole 100 bushels per acre better!” Besides the weather, he attributes some of that increase to the nutrients sequestered by the annual rye grass.
The cover crop seeding of fall, 2013, was close to a disaster. “We flew on 1000 acres and drilled the rest, and virtually nothing came up,” he said. “We had a very dry fall followed by a brutal winter, very cold and no snow cover.” But the harvest this fall has been even better average than last year. He attributes some of that to the improvement in soil health from years of strip till corn, no till beans, and at least one successful year of annual rye grass.
This fall, another wet one, has presented difficulties both for harvesting corn and seeding annual ryegrass. Since early August, his farm has gotten more than 17 inches of rain. About two weeks after flying on the first 1000 acres, the area got a hard five inches of rain and John’s farm has seen no erosion. Since then, he’s flown on most of his acres with annual ryegrass and feels cautiously optimistic about the survival of the cover crop this winter.
“I’m now less worried about year to year differences,” he said, “and more focused on the long term. I go out there now and, my gosh, you wouldn’t believe the number of earthworm holes. That’s evidence of better organic matter and less compaction. I tell you,” he added, “there’s no turning me around on cover cropping at this point. It’s a winning solution.”