January 13, 2004: The agricultural traditions
in Northwest Ohio are as abundant and rich and the black soils
left there by ancient glaciers and the Great Black Swamp that
dominated the landscape more than a century ago. After toiling
for years to drain the mire, the area’s first settlers
took great pride in the appearance of their freshly tilled
fields of black soil. This pride remains.
“A lot of farmers take great pride in the appearance
of their fields and that’s not going to change,”
says Rich Bennett, a Henry County farmer in the heart of what
used to be the Great Black Swamp. “The way they do things
has a lot to do with image.”
For years, Bennett was no different. Like everyone around
him he replaced the management challenges of traditionally
used cover crops with more ascetically pleasing fall and spring
tillage. But by the mid-1980s, the high cost of fertilizer,
fuel and other inputs took its toll on the farm’s profitability.
Bennett knew that something had to change on his 600-acre
farm so he started experimenting with cover crops, input reduction
and conservation tillage.
“I had to either improve the way I farmed or get out,”
he said. “I used to have to go out and try to get more
land to farm so I could make ends meet. Then, I took some
ideas my dad used to do and started applying them to my situation.
I decided I wanted to make some money for a change.”
Now, in stark contrast to the sight of rich, black parallel
mounds of tilled black dirt exposed through the winter months,
Bennett’s fields are a shabby green and dull yellow
of decomposing crop residue and a living winter cover crop.
While Bennett’s fields may not dazzle the eye of the
traditional agriculturalist, viewers are instead treated to
a vision of conservation, sound agronomic practices and solid
“Which would you rather see, green fields or the soil?”
Bennett said. “My farm may not look the best, but my
economics are up there with anybody.”
Though in the estimation of some, Bennett’s green winter
fields lack rtistic appeal, his checkbook has never looked
“It’s purely economic. With cover crops, I can
save almost 50% in input costs,” he said. “Those
input costs were keeping me from making a good living at farming.
My yields haven’t really changed from when I put high
In 2003, Bennett’s corn crop averaged 200 bushels per
acre, his soybeans produced a disappointing 40 bushels and
his wheat yielded between 70 and 80 bushels per acre on sandy
ground, all at or above state averages. With only the added
expense of the seed and labor of planting the rye and clover,
Bennett can save big on nitrogen, herbicide, fuel and equipment
costs in his current management system compared to the more
conventional system he used previously. He has saved enough
with his new cropping system through the years to purchase
the land he farms and eliminate renting ground.
The rotation Bennett settled on, after years of trial and
error, is a soybean-wheat-clover-corn-rye rotation that works
well on his farm.
“Most guys have had poor experiences with cover crops
because they tried to do what somebody else did,” Bennett
said. “You have to work with small plots to see what
works on your farm.”
After the soybean crop, Bennett plants 3 to 3.5 bushels of
wheat per acre by spreading it with a fertilizer cart and
incorporating the seed with a disk. Then, during spring nitrogen
application, he broadcasts red clover seed that was purchased
from the local elevator with the fertilizer cart. When the
wheat is harvested, the clover takes over for the rest of
“In the fall I disk the clover to incorporate it into
the soil and then in the spring it just pops back up,”
The clover stand is disked again and then burnt down at corn
planting time. The corn is planted with a White planter.
After a pre-sidedress nitrate test, Bennett generally applies
50-pounds of nitrogen or less to each acre of corn.
“You kind of get a feel for how much nitrogen you need,”
he said. “I used to put on 225-pounds without the clover.”
After the corn is harvested, 1 to 2 bushels of rye per acre
is spread with a fertilizer cart and incorporated with a disk.
Then 2 to 2.5 bushels of rye per acre is planted on the farm’s
poorest ground and harvested for seed.
“The rye will grow no matter what,” he said.
“It grows through the winter. In the spring it just
starts shooting up like crazy. Sometimes it’s knee-high
and sometimes it’s waist-high. It’s just an incredible
In late spring, Roundup Ready soybeans are planted into the
“I plant soybeans with an end-wheel drill,” he
said. “Nobody wants them anymore so they’re cheap.
The V-disk penetrates my soil so easily with the rye root
mass I’ve established. That helps me save in machinery
At soybean planting, the rye is sprayed with a full-dose
of Roundup and flattened by the equipment. The dead, flattened
rye prevents weed growth with shade and chemicals produced
by the roots while they were living.
“The rye has an alleopathic effect, so I save a pass
with Roundup,” he said. In addition, the combination
of cover crops and conservation tillage practices have improved
the soil’s health and reduced pest and disease problems
- particularly white mold and soybean cyst nematode - on the
Less run-off, better water quality
The economic benefits of cover crops on Bennett’s farm
are as clear as the streams and ditches that surround it.
“Now I may be sending some soil to Lake Erie, but
not like I used to be,” Bennett said. “Cover crops
are the best way to improve water quality you could ever have.
They are a protective measure for everything Mother Nature
can throw against us. I was skeptical at first, but after
seeing the ditches, I’m a believer. I don’t see
all the silt accumulate.”
Rather than sitting on the soil’s compacted surface
or running off, the rain can infiltrate the fields on Bennett’s
farm via the porous soil structure created with the use of
his winter cover crops.
“Cover crops are the most beneficial underneath the
ground for water quality,” Bennett said. “The
key to improving water quality is the structure of the soil.
Now my fields are like a sponge. When you work in it, it breaks
up so easily. I don’t see those slabs any more. I’ve
found I can get better water infiltration and less runoff.
Those cover crops allow that rain to soak in.”
Bennett’s farm has a wide range of soil types from
the black sandy soils and yellow sand ridges to the heavy
ground the area is known for. The roots of his cover crops
hold water in the sandy soils, break up the heavy clay soils
to allow for better water infiltration, and hold the soil
to prevent water and wind erosion all year.
“My goal is to keep something growing in the ground
all the time,” he said. “I used to hate to see
the sand blowing or water forming gullies in fields. That
would make me cringe.”
Cover crops also keep nutrients in the soil, instead of in
the ground water, for the corn and soybeans to utilize.
“Cover crops seem to keep the nitrogen and potash from
leaching,” Bennett said. “They bring the nutrients
to the soil’s surface so they’re available for
the next crop.”
Though the neighbors still look at Bennett’s fields
and shake their heads with disapproval, he finds enough contentment
in those winter fields of yellow and green to compensate for
the pride he swallowed many years ago when he took the time,
effort and patience required to make cover crops work on his
“I’m satisfied economically and environmentally.
This is the most satisfying time in farming I have ever had,”
he said. “So much of farming is built around now and
not for the future. Cover crops are a long-term investment
— an investment for the future.”