Start at a manageable scale
Changing tillage practices or adding cover crops bring their own unique management requirements and levels of management intensity to the farm. No-tilling soybeans into corn stubble will be a very different scenario than adding a cereal rye cover crop in front of corn. Understanding the management requirements of each practice and more importantly the comfort level of implementation should be considered when deciding the scale and rate of adopting new practices.
Be creative with equipment
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to planting cover crops. Cover seeds can be flown on in season, broadcast with fertilizer, or drilled. Vertical tillage tools, strip till bars and combine heads equipped with air seeders mounted on them are becoming an increasingly popular way to implement cover crops while integrating them into an already existing pass across the field to save on time and costs. Making modifications to equipment that you already have to accommodate new tillage practices or cover crop planting can be efficient and cost-effective.
Buy cash crop seed with new practices in mind
Look at the attributes of hybrids and varieties when considering making a tillage change or adding cover crops. When looking at going to no-till, keep in mind the soil may be slightly wetter and cooler in the spring than conventional tillage methods and may need to be later planted or have good emergence stress ratings. Increased residue on the soil surface can also harbor plant pathogens that can lead to increased disease pressure as well. When looking to implement cover crops in the fall, choosing an earlier maturity hybrid or variety allowing the crop to be harvested earlier can be helpful in getting cover crops planted timelier.
Look at the entire picture
Practices such as reducing tillage passes and adding cover crops have numerous agronomic benefits. Increasing water infiltration, reducing erosion, and increasing soil organic matter are just a few examples. When considering adding conservation practices and how they affect the bottom line of your operation, be sure to look at all aspects of making a change. For instance, by going no-till, one or two tillage passes may be eliminated which can provide significant savings on labor, fuel and equipment maintenance. By pairing these savings with money available from carbon, ecosystem service and cost-sharing programs, the total financial benefits can be rewarding in addition to achieving conservation goals.
Utilize programs to help cover costs
There are currently many federal and private programs available to farmers that are designed to help balance the risk of implementing new conservation practices on the farm. Outcomes-based programs, pay-for-practice, and cost-sharing programs are all examples of programs that can assist in covering cost of seed, equipment, and application costs of making tillage changes and adding cover crops. Programs can widely vary in requirements, contracting and payment structure, so be sure to have a full understanding of how signing up may impact eligibility with other programs in the future. A list of questions a farmer should ask about these programs can be found at www.theoutcomesfund.com/farmer-resources.
The Soil and Water Outcomes Fund is an outcome-based program that helps farmers transition to on-farm conservation practices by providing financial incentives for carbon sequestration and water quality improvements. By stacking carbon and water quality benefits, SWOF is able to maximize payments to the grower of up to $40 an acre for the implementation of new conservation practices, with 50% of the contract payment being made at the time of contracting in order to help with cost of implementation. More information on the program can be found at www.theoutcomesfund.com or by contacting Conservation Agronomist Kevin Schabacker at 779-861-2979.