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Workshop to draw more interest in cover crops

Minnesota West instructor Rolf Mahlberg (left), Missouri River Watershed Coordinator Chessa Frahm and NRCS Technician Dawn Madison show some of the cover crops that are growing in the greenhouse at Minnesota West. The crops will be displayed during a Cover Crops Workshop March 11 in Worthington. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — Farmers who incorporate cover crops into their corn-soybean rotation are seeing better water infiltration in the soil, increased organic matter and, in many cases, higher yields. Still, the use of cover crops isn’t prevalent across southwest Minnesota.

The Nobles County Natural Resources Conservation Service and Soil and Water Conservation District are hoping to boost farmer interest in adding cereal rye, purple-topped turnips or other cover crops to their operation, and plan a workshop in Worthington March 11 to tout the opportunity.

“This is an option for farmers to get exposed to cover crops, the different plants and seeds, and to think about how to seed a cover crop,” said NRCS District Conservationist Stephanie McLain of the program, planned from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s Administration building. Pre-registration is requested for a lunch count by calling the NRCS office at 376-9150, Ext. 3. The first 50 registrants will have the registration fee waived.

“We really want people to think about cover crops as a viable option for a corn-soybean rotation in southwest Minnesota,” McLain said. “We want farmers to think about this and try this in their rotation and see how they can make it work.”

The day will begin with a presentation by Kent Solberg, who operates a grass-based livestock farm near Verndale and is the Minnesota Dairy Initiative Coordinator for the Sustainable Farming Association. Solberg is an instructor for the Sustainable Food Production program at Fergus Falls Community College.

Solberg, who utilizes cover crops in his farming operation, will talk about the benefits of cover crops and speak in general about their use in production agriculture.

Following his presentation, McLain will demonstrate how water infiltrates the soil and talk about the science behind cover crops, including how their use breaks up compaction of the soil.

During lunch, a PowerPoint presentation will include information on seeding methods with photos of aerial seeding. There will also be a handful of vendors showcased who specialize in and/or sell cover crop seed to visit with attendees, and vendor lists will be available to help farmers make contacts with pilots who do aerial seeding or individuals who can provide assistance in strip tillage.

The afternoon session will feature a panel of farmers who have used cover crops in their operation. Among those presenting are Jerry Ackermann of rural Lakefield and Ian Cunningham of Pipestone County. Ackermann grows corn and soybeans, using cover crops to help improve soil health, while Cunningham — a cow-calf producer — will talk about the advantages of cover crops with livestock grazing. Additional farmers may be added to the panel.

McLain said grain farmers and livestock producers can both benefit from cover crops, and that message will likely come through the producer panel presentation.

“Farmers are incredibly creative and capable of retrofitting ideas to their operation if they can put together a mental plan of attack,” said Dawn Madison, NRCS soil conservation technician. “When you get a group of people together, it’s a great way to network.”

Madison said she’s excited about the potential for cover crops to take off in southwest Minnesota, and not be just a fad farmers try and then forget about.

“We really believe this is the way for farming to be in the future to help us maximize our profits,” she said. “We have some of the best soils out there. With ground at $10,000 an acre on some of these fields, if you can’t buy an 80, make the most out of the one you have.”

With cover crops boosting organic matter in the soil, McLain said 1 percent of organic matter can hold 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of water.

“If it doesn’t rain after July 1, that organic matter gives the moisture up to the growing crop,” she said. “Having that water in the soil makes for a better crop.”

There are a few programs available to producers interested in implementing cover crops. The Soil Health Initiative in Minnesota is leading a program that requires producers to plant cover crops on a specific site for five consecutive years. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program also offer incentives. Information on each of those programs is available through local NRCS offices.

In addition to the local NRCS and SWCD, sponsors of the March 11 Cover Crops Workshop include the Minnesota Corn and Soybean Growers Association, Minnesota West, the Sustainable Farming Association and Kanaranzi-Little Rock and Okabena-Ocheda watershed districts.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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