Dengler Domain: Soil

Sean Dengler.

If you are a farmland owner and you have not had a discussion about cover crops on your land with your farmer, it may be in your best interest. Most family land is more than likely going to be passed down to the next generation so why not ensure it is in the best shape? The best way to protect it is to make sure it is not being blown away or being washed away in a heavy rain event. While no till is the first step, cover crops provide the armor to protect the world’s most precious resource.

Throughout time, whether the Dust Bowl or ancient civilizations, overworking the land can reduce the production capacity. According to the Des Moines Register, the federal government says Iowa loses 5.4 tons of soil per acre while replacing five tons of it per year. While not a drastic loss, there is still a loss of soil every single year. The soil provides all the value to a farm so why lose it? It might not seem like much in the short term, but shortchanging future generations like our children and grandchildren is not good.

According to a recent study by the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, wind erosion removes the near-surface few millimeters of soil with the highest organic matter and nutrient concentration – the most physically, chemically, and biologically active fraction of the soil profile. This is like taking the frosting off the top of a cupcake. The cupcake will be fine without it, but it will not be its best version.

The slightest loss of erosion can significantly affect the potential of the crop. If fertilizers like phosphorus and potassium are spread on top, think about how much of that might blow away. When it comes to water erosion, the same theory probably applies. Once the soil leaves the surface, it never comes back with the nutrients. Through either form of erosion, think about the loss in yield potential, revenue, and profit when these nutrients leave the land. Cover crops help keep the soil intact and increase nutrient efficiency for the next crop.

It is not easy to switch agriculture practices entirely in one year, and this is not what it is about. It is about having a conversation with your farmer and seeing what is possible. There is an old saying, “No one is making any more land.” With other economic forces reducing the amount of land, it is vitally important to preserve the agricultural production land. From experience, cover crops have a learning curve. Try them on a small amount of your land for a few years to learn how they work and slowly increase as confidence goes up. A cover crop like winter rye in front of soybeans is easy to get used to and while winter rye and other covers can be finicky in front of corn, there are people who have experience making it work.

From my experience, there is a learning curve, but the covers certainly keep the most profitable resource on the ground and not flying away. While no-tilling beans this year, there was no dust behind the planter in the ground covered with rye versus the bare spots. Compare this experience to strip-till in the corn, and it was a night and day difference. If you have any questions about cover crops, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Cover crops are vitally important to keeping the soil intact and not losing your and the United States’ most precious resource. There are ways to manage cover crops to ensure top yields and be able to pass a piece of the world down to the next generation. Not everyone has this role in the world holding onto the greatest resources on the planet, Iowa soil. Do everything you can to protect it and provide the best value to it. Short term revenue is great, but long-term sustainability is necessary.

Sean Dengler is a writer, comedian, farmer, and host of the Pandaring Talk podcast who grew up on a farm between Traer and Dysart. You can reach him at sean.h.dengler@gmail.com.