Water conservation

Turning cover crops into a family business

On their farm in Miami County, Indiana, soil health and conservation are top priorities for Jon Reese and his daughter, Sarah Hanes. Reese started using cover crops almost 25 years ago.

This passion has led to more than just using cover crops on their own farm. The father-daughter team continued to learn more about them. Reese attended many cover crop conferences, while Hanes began selling cover crop seeds for La Crosse Seed, headquartered in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They also learned by trial and error. Armed with this knowledge, Reese, Hanes and her husband, Scott, started a small business to help local farmers implement cover crops in their operations.

The family works with clients to assess their fields and decide which crops are best suited to the situation. They then seed the cover crops. What started as a few extra fields for local farm families has spread to multiple counties. More and more people are calling on them for their expertise.

Cover crops are not always a priority for farmers. “In the fall, farmers worry about being in the combine, not trying to seed cover crops, and that’s where we started to step in,” says Hanes.

The company is still in its development phase. The Hanese work with people on different test plots on local farms.

Their own experience with cover crops began when Reese seeded clover on a few acres. Back then, soil health was not the hot topic in agriculture that it is today. Reese was just experimenting to see if he could boost nitrogen levels.

Why Cover Crops

Agronomists say cover crops sequester nutrients, increase nitrogen and phosphorus, help control erosion and water, and increase organic matter. They are also a way to introduce new species into crop rotation, help with weed control, and improve soil health and biological activity.

These benefits have been known for some time. Yet only about 10% of Indiana farms use cover crops. So what’s the next step?

Most likely, leaders like the Hanes are onto something. They now use cover crops on all of their acreage. They are sold on the value of using cover crops and have made it part of their mission to make sure everyone knows about their benefits.

They started by hosting an annual field day at their farm. They hosted soil scientists and soil and water conservation specialists, and offered educational sessions on weed identification and soil health. They dug soil pits and used soil profiles to educate local farmers on the benefits of using cover crops and implementing conservation practices in their operations.

Tips for Using Cover Crops

“Start simple,” advises Hanes. “You want to have something green and live up to planting. It doesn’t have to be a big mix that you plant at a crazy pace.

She says cereal rye is an easy-to-manage crop with a good growth rate if you’re looking for an option to start with. They had a lot of success with that.

ADVANCED MIX: The Reese and Hanes families have used many different cover crop mixes. Here is a cover crop mix with radishes and sunflowers.

Reese says one of the biggest mistakes people make is starting with cultures that are harder to manage, so they think it’s too much work. This experience may discourage them from using cover crops in the future.

“The oats and radishes are getting really tidy and have a lot of growth,” he says. “If these are the crops you want to start with, don’t plant them at a crazy pace, so the growth doesn’t get out of control.”

See improvements

You won’t start seeing changes overnight. Reese and Hanes say farmers really need to know what they’re looking at to understand and see the changes that are happening.

A soil scientist who attends their field day each year said one of the most noticeable changes is the color of the soil, indicating an increase in organic matter, Reese reports. This shows that cover crops actually improve the soil over time.

One of the fields that Reese and Hanes added to their operation is another great example of how they improved the land. This land was harshly cultivated. Once the land was drained and tiled, they brought in a deep ripper with a 450 horsepower tractor. When they hit a spot in the field where they killed the tractor, they thought they might have hit the foundation of a house because the ground was so hard. The waterways were always brown no matter how little rain they got.

After their first year with a crop and a cover crop, they report that the streams are clear after the rain. By implementing a no-till and cover crop system after backfilling the field, they completely changed the water filtration of the field.

Cover crops aren’t new and aren’t going away anytime soon. But farmers are constantly learning new things to improve their use. Leaders like Reese and Hanes are paving the way for the future by making row crop practices more sustainable with cover crops.

Kuhn is an agricultural communications senior at Purdue University.