A conventional farmer rescued by
cover crops and a diverse rotation

The neighbors may not approve of his shaggy winter fields, but Rich Bennett says the cover crops and reduced inputs he adopted on his Northern Ohio farm in the mid-80s saved him economically.

By Matt Reese

Editor's NOTE:

Stories on Rich Bennett’s early exploration of sustainable practices appeared frequently in The New Farm magazine.

He will join another favorite NewFarm.org farmer, Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, at the Innovative Farmers of Ohio conference January 16 and 17 in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Visit the Innovative Farmers of Ohio website for more information: www.ifoh.org.

Can't make it to the Ohio this week? Check back with NewFarm.org for a Talking Shop article covering the conference.

 

Organization-At-A-Glance
Innovative Farmers of Ohio

Purpose: To promote agriculture that preserves and strengthens the economic, social, and environmental well-being of Ohio’s farms, farm families, and rural communities. Central activities are farmer-to-farmer education and redeveloping local food systems.

Founded: By farmers in 1993 to conduct on-farm research trials that would answer production questions in a whole-farm, ecological agricultural context. 

For more information:
Visit online at:
www.ifoh.org

Contact info:
Laura Ann Bergman
Director
ifoh@aol.com
3083 Liberty Road, Delaware, Ohio 43015
phone: (740) 368-8552
fax: (740) 362-8113

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 economic principles.

“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 better.

“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 inputs in.”

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 the summer.

“In the fall I disk the clover to incorporate it into the soil and then in the spring it just pops back up,” Bennett said.

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 plant.”

In late spring, Roundup Ready soybeans are planted into the living rye.

“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 cost.”

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 farm.

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 farm.

“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.”