Flooded fields bring conservation into focus

Amanda Kautz, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, holds a packet of typical cover crop seeds including oats and radishes.

GOSHEN — As farmers staring at flooded fields across Indiana are scrambling to find a backup plan, local farm program officials say now is a good time to consider new soil conservation measures.

Jim Hess with the Elkhart County Soil and Water Conservation District and Amanda Kautz with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been urging farmers to consider practices like planting cover crops and installing filter strips. Cover crops are meant to protect and enrich the soil in the off-season, while filter strips are permanent grassy areas that prevent runoff of sediment, nutrients or other things that would otherwise enter waterways.

Each agency offers its own programs to help as well as incentivize farmers to adopt soil conservation practices.

Hess told members of the Elkhart County Stormwater Board at their June 24 meeting that after seeing the rates of crop plantings amid the heavy rain this spring, they’ve been approaching farmers and landowners about considering cover crops. 

“I anticipate this year to be probably a big year, mostly because we don’t want to sit idle, we don’t want weeds to grow,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them to put (cover crops) in for several reasons.”

He told the board that 13,488 tons of soil were saved from going into ditches in 2018, based on numbers seen in the county’s cover crop program. The number increases to 23,000 tons when you add in other programs, like one funded by a Clean Water Indiana grant and one through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Just from that small amount – we put basically 10,700 acres in cover crops last year,” he said. “That’s why we’re starting a research program, to help support that and prove that it does make a difference.” 

Board member Mike Yoder agreed that it would be especially beneficial this year. It’s something he plans to do himself, even on land where they were prevented from planting their regular crop.

“Some of this ground’s gonna need some extra time to heal,” Yoder said. “I don’t know if this spring is a pattern we’re going to see for a while or not. It’s about the second wet spring we’ve had.”

Stormwater board member Phil Barker said he’d like to see more focus on filter strips.

“It helps everything right down the line,” he said. “It reduces the erosion and keeps it from getting into our ditches, which keeps us from having to redig our ditches.”

Hess said the outlook for the next decade is a heavy wet spring up to June, followed by a rainless summer and then a wet fall. 

“So that’s why we’re trying to get farmers kind of in a new groove and maybe a new mindset on how to prepare for that,” he said.

Plan B

With just over half as many suitable days for fieldwork this spring as in past years, farmers across Indiana have been able to get only a fraction of their crops in the ground by the usual time. In response, state farm agencies are considering requests for federal assistance while farmers are looking for a Plan B.

“Plan A went out about the end of May. Plan B started in. And now we’re at Plan C as we get to the first of July,” Hess said Friday in the SWCD office at the Elkhart County Fairgrounds. “So we’re running out of plans.”

He and Kautz, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said they don’t have a firm grasp yet of how many acres are going unused. Kautz said it will depend on what the weather does for the next two weeks.

“Everybody’s still trying to get as much as they can in,” she said. “I know I heard quite a few people come in and it may be as little as five acres, it may be 40 acres. Maybe they had a whole field they couldn’t get in. But I think everyone, to some extent, is experiencing some kind of prevented planting or just difficult planting because of this weather.”

She noted that the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which oversees crop insurance, just pushed ahead the final haying and grazing date for farmers who planted cover crops on prevented plant acres. The RMA adjusted the date this year to Sept. 1, when normally it might be Oct. 1 or Nov. 1.

“We do technical assistance, so we can talk to people about what to plant based on their goals for the year, what will grow well out there in this kind of odd season, where as many people normally aren’t doing cover crops,” she said. “And then RMA ... has certain dates that they establish where you’re allowed to hay, graze, that kind of thing if you want to use the cover crop other than just leaving it out in the field for a soil amendment.”

She added that they’re telling people to check with their crop insurance agent first, just to be safe. They also recommend checking what kind of herbicide was used and whether the cover crops can adapt.

Hess said the county’s program, the Stormwater Alliance Management Program, doesn’t have any deadlines associated with it.

“We don’t have any dates set,” he said. “Anybody that’s coming in for prevented planting, we can seed that to a cover crop to help at least get the soil covered.”

Benefits

The Soil and Water Conservation District started its cover crop program two years ago. Before that, Hess said individual farmers used soil conservation practices but nothing was formally recorded.

He said 45 farmers participated in 2018. Another 30 people participated through the federal program, said Kautz.

They explained some of the benefits to cover crops, filter strips and other conservation practices, like no-till farming. Those include protecting against weeds, promoting soil health, preventing erosion and keeping waterways clean.

“We’re all looking for the soil health, and the benefits of that and being able to hold and stabilize the nutrients that would otherwise run off, it holds it in place,” Hess said.

He said their biggest concerns are preventing erosion and runoff. Cover crops help by promoting the infiltration of the water into the soil.

It’s a resource that would be useful the next time the county experiences a drought, as hard as that is to imagine right now, he said.

“It helps break open some of that till area or hardpan to help the water infiltrate down, rather than sheet flow across the top,” he said. “We got a better chance of soaking it up, using it, and hopefully farmers, landowners, whoever, can bank on that water supply, being able to – if we ever get a drought – utilize that as a resource.”

Kautz emphasized the weed control effect of cover crops – by taking up the soil that would otherwise host invasive plant species.

“Anything that didn’t get planted, once the residual herbicide wears off, they’re going to get a flush of weeds,” she said. “Doing a cover crop will keep that from coming in and taking over and having to keep going out and messing with those weeds to get rid of them, because obviously they don’t want to establish a seed bank there.”

She said there’s a shortage of certain seeds this year, so they can’t recommend some species of cover crops they normally would. But summer annuals that would grow well in these conditions include sorghum-sudan grass, sunflower, buckwheat, millet and sun hemp.

Traditional winter crops like oats, radish and cereal rye can be mixed in if the planting is made closer to the end of July or start of August, she added. 

“They should survive that last little bit of summer and stay green into winter,” she said. “And some of them will actually overwinter and green up in the spring again.”

She added that they’re recommending really diversifying cover crop types this year. She and Hess said it will result in healthier, more resilient soil that has an effect on things like animal health too.

“Now’s the time to try and figure out how to get more than one species out there, ‘cause you can really diversify that mix,” she said. “The diversity that we have in our plants promotes not only good soil structure, soil health, but it promotes diversity of our soil organisms that we need for the nutrient cycle and that kind of thing to work.”

Baby steps

For anyone considering using cover crops for the first time, Hess cautioned that it’s different from regular seasonal planting in a lot of ways.

“We still have a lot of individuals who don’t no-till, don’t plant cover crops and so on. One of the ways to help do that is to help with our incentive program, and do some cost-sharing so that they can try it,” he said. “Most of the individuals who come on board maybe for the first time, we have them baby step into that to try it.”

He wouldn’t recommend a first-timer to put their entire field into cover crops, for instance. He said it takes different management skills, a different mindset, as well as different equipment.

He suggested focusing on the most critical areas or splitting a field in half to get a side-by-side comparison. Kautz said the NRCS offers its cost-sharing program in the spring, and they recommend the same thing.

“Take your worst field and split it in half, and sign up to do 20 acres of a 40-acre field, and see what it looks like,” she said. “Because that side-by-side comparison should really tell you what it’s doing for your field.”

Both of them added that, while one of the conservation practices can fix one thing, a combination of methods works even better. 

Of the 45 participants in the county’s program, Hess said six used a combo of cover crops, filter strips and grass waterways, which are designed to help move water across a field while minimizing erosion.

“So that’s the full package. And we’re converting that into a no-till operation now... because they have started to see the return on investment for them is better, going that direction,” he said.

“Like I said, it doesn’t work for everybody, because it’s a management and a mindset, a skill that has to be learned. But conservation takes a long time. We can’t do it overnight, but we can baby step it along, and ultimately make it better than it was.”

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