Southern Minnesota farmer Tom Cotter has been utilizing cover crops for over 20 years and is a firm believer in the holistic contribution cover crops make to his farming operation. The benefits for him recently compounded when he began interseeding into V6 corn and allowing for different cover crops in conjunction with his soybean and corn rotations instead of the standard winter rye. Species utilized in Tom’s operation include sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, berseem clover, Mihi clover, and common vetch. These cover crops (especially the sorghum) have kept his soils moist even in prolonged periods of high temperatures. When discussing moisture management on his farm, Tom has observed that reduced tillage practices have increased his infiltration rates, and he believes he may be getting better drainage than tiling would achieve in areas using cover crops.
Weed suppression was the primary reason Tom started cover cropping, and over the years he has moved into using no pre-emergent herbicides on soybeans and no post spray herbicides on sweet corn when using cereal rye for his cover crop. Increased profitability has gone hand in hand as Tom’s use of cover crops increased. Reduced disease pressure, better water management, and lower fertilization requirements have all lowered costs on Tom’s farm while maintaining steady yields. Additionally, it’s been less labor-intensive when using cover crops. For Tom, cover crops can be seeded at a rate of 30 to 40 ac an hour compared to a tillage rate of 10 ac an hour. With high fuel costs and the costs of labor, the savings on seeding operations can be substantial. Additionally, insecticides and fungicides aren’t necessary for Tom’s farming operation with beneficial insect populations managing themselves.
Growing cover crops has also allowed Tom to transition to grass-fed cattle and reap the premiums associated with grass-fed/organic sales. Diversity is key to managing cattle on cover crops and a plan for where the animals can be grazing throughout the year should be in place to realize the maximum benefits of incorporating cover crops into a farming operation. The benefits are well worth it though. Tom has observed lower death rates at birth and an overall more naturally resilient and healthier herd has been a result of the reduced time spent in pens. At this point, Tom has gotten to a point where he doesn’t need to feed corn or silage to his animals either. Running fences and letting cattle out on the cover crops has also meant he doesn’t need to haul cattle to pasture and both the manure and the saliva from the animals provide benefits towards boosting microbe activity in the soils. Of note, the utilization of brassicas has created additional benefits. Toms animals can get most of their moisture requirements met simply by grazing on the cover crops even in warm weather.