Taking Cover: Farmers make best use of cover crops

Each year, as autumn starts to show its colors, Jeff and Carla Wagner are at work adding a vibrant shade of green that will color the countryside.

They are part of a movement spreading across Seneca County to plant cover crops—plants that will cover their farm ground during the winter, preventing erosion and nutrient runoff as well as improving the health of the soil. While farmers and gardeners have used cover crops for centuries, the practice is finding new relevance.

This year, an estimated 15,000 to 18,000 acres of cover crops were planted in Seneca County alone due to innovators like the Wagners, increased funding through the federal farm bill and education from the Seneca Conservation District.

“The part that interests me the most is building the organic matter in the soil,” Jeff said. “I’d like to build that up and actually make the farm better than it was when I started, and cover crops help me do that.”

The couple grows about 700 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and then protects the land by seeding blends of radish, Sudan grass and rye.

“When you see a green field with cover crops in the fall, it’s green because the cover crop is scavenging all the nutrients on the field, holding them there,” said Beth Diesch, Seneca Conservation District education and outreach coordinator.

That means those nutrients are not making their way into streams where they can contribute to algal blooms on Lake Erie.

While conservation advocates would like to see this practice continue to grow, Bret Margraf, a nutrient technician with Seneca Conservation District, said farmers are figuring out how to make it work for their individual farms.

Margraf, himself, is an early adopter of this growing technique on his own farm, experimenting with different plant varieties and blends for years. He also has edge-of-field testing equipment installed on his farm as part of ongoing research to find ways to reduce nutrient runoff.

“Anyone using cover crops that thinks back to the first time they planted cover crops remembers being nervous,” Margraf said. “We just want to make sure that folks new to cover crops don’t make a rash decision that could give them a bad taste for cover crops.”

The increased outreach from the Seneca Conservation District is paying off. Wagner credited the group for sparking his interest in cover crops.

“I may have eventually got into it but not this early,” he said.

Seneca Conservation District is now working to get more information out to farmers and the community about this effort to protect the environment.

“We look at the big picture and want everything covered in cover crops in the end,” Diesch said. “But to get there, you have to put each piece of the puzzle together.”

A new look

Soil and Water Conservation Districts have a long history of protecting resources in communities throughout Ohio. To better reflect its work, Seneca County Soil and Water Conservation District recently changed its name to Seneca Conservation District and began using “Conserve Seneca” branding. It launched a new website, developed online tools for farmers, increased its social media outreach and created signs for farmers to showcase their cover crops.

“As an organization, we knew if we wanted to engage a new generation of conservationists, we needed to meet them where they’re at,” said Seneca Conservation District’s Beth Diesch.

Common cover crops:

These plants capture and hold excess nitrogen and other nutrients to reduce runoff. Upon decay, they return nutrients to the soil to be used for the next crop:
Tillage radish
Cereal rye
Annual ryegrass

These plants convert nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it in the soil for use by crops:
Hairy vetch
Sunn hemp

Here’s a look at how farmers and local businesses are making Seneca County a little more green:

‘A better place’
Tony Faeth has been using cover crops since the 1980s. He and his father saw that their improved soil dried quicker in the spring, allowing them to plant their grain crops earlier.

“I feel that we may have a deed to this property but we are just stewards of the soil,” Faeth said. “I want to make the place better than when I came here. That is what we are in it for, to make the world a better place than when we came to it. It’s simple.”
Faeth uses various blends of cover crops including radish, rye, oats and winter peas.

Improving the land
Leon Bird, owner of Bird Agronomics, has never farmed but developed a passion for advancing farming by encouraging the use of cover crops and providing quality seed.
“I’m 68 this year and have no need to do anything else, but it is exciting to be able to move the ball forward,” Bird said of his desire to help improve the area’s soils.

A system that works
Dwight Clary and his wife, Lisa, farm 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and also run a seed business through Center Seeds to help farmers plant cover crops. One technique the business uses is to have a crop duster drop cereal rye seed onto corn fields.

“If you get a farmer doing this somewhere, people start watching, and it grows from there,” Clary said.

Clary now seeds 7,000 acres in cereal rye cover crops for other farmers.

Helping farmers succeed
Lynn Eberhard and his sons farm about 600 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and have been using cover crops for years. He has passed this interest on to his son Eric who works on the family farm and is a full-time seeds salesman for Crop Production Services (CPS). He helps ensure that farmers trying cover crops out for the first time will have success.

“I’m viewed somewhat as the cover crop expert at CPS because not many there have dealt with cover crops before,” Eric said.

Ohio Farm Bureau membership