Grower Keeps Soils Green With Cover Crops

Keep Soils Covered

Cover crops keep the soil on the Myers Family Farm healthy and armored against erosion. (Joel Reichenberger)

When Joel Myers hangs up his "active farmer" cap at the end of the 2024 growing season, he plans to continue promoting no-till farming with the use of cover crops. That reflects the conservation passion he developed as a youth while watching his family repair gullies and washouts on the family farm.

This zeal no doubt influenced Myers' professional career. He is a retired state agronomist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a position he held for 16 years after climbing the ladder in the organization beginning as a soil conservationist in 1967. During that time, he worked with Penn State University and other entities promoting soil conservation, and is recognized as a driving force behind the creation of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance.

CONSERVATION MODEL

Myers and his brother, Don, manage Myers Farm, in the middle of Pennsylvania near Spring Mills. At only 75 acres, it's not a big operation, but the effects of their work have been felt across the state. The brothers made their operation a working demonstration model for conservation practices and a host site for tours.

The Sand County Foundation, which awarded Joel Myers the 2023 Leopold Conservation Award, reports Pennsylvania farmland managed with no-till rose from 20% in 2000 to roughly 70% today, and cover crops are now on over 40% of the acres. The foundation says Myers' practical experience and outreach has been a factor in that adoption rate.

A LONG ROAD

Myers Farm wasn't always a conservation mecca. "When my father bought this farm in 1944, it had six fields with pasture fences overgrown in timber," Myers explains. "He cleared the trees and old wire so he could strip-crop the land and begin contour farming. He grew hay and small grains because he had little equipment, plus it helped to control erosion."

Over the years, Myers added corn and soybeans. By the 1980s, however, he was seeing visible signs of erosion after the soybeans.

By that time, Myers had become the state NRCS agronomist and was intrigued with area dairy producers who were on the cutting edge of the no-till movement. Myers had experimented for several years with contour farming, residue management, reduced tillage and crop rotations to slow erosion. He realized he had to get on board with no-till to address his own erosion problems. He and Don, who has an ag engineering background, bought a new John Deere corn planter as they began the switch away from tillage.

"I quickly realized no-till equipment had to be tweaked to work in various settings," Myers explains. "We were planting into soils not at all adapted to no-till, and we needed better closing wheels to close the slot. I knew I had to learn the equipment side of no-till and how to adapt machinery to various conditions."

Several years later, the brothers bought a used 3-point hitch Tye drill spaced on 10 inches for alfalfa and modified it to improve pressure on the closing wheels.

"It dawned on us with the drill and the planter we could go continuous no-till," he says. Eventually, they had five different no-till planters and drills, which offered them the chance to learn and demonstrate machine differences to other farmers.

Currently, they run a 30-inch 4-row Kinze 3000 corn planter with frame-mounted 13-wave coulters, Dawn spiked row cleaners and spiked closing wheels, and a 10-foot Vermeer Haybuster 107C drill equipped with a legume box used to seed cover crops and forage seeding on 8-inch spacing.

TURN TO COVER CROPS

The Myers' farm averages less than a ton of soil loss per acre per year, including the rolling upland fields with rock outcroppings and a few 15% slopes. Also, regular soil analysis through a commercial lab shows soil organic matter across the farm averaged 5% in 2023.

In recent years, the brothers adopted a corn/soybean/four-year alfalfa rotation. They began interseeding cereal rye or triticale in the alfalfa after the fourth cutting and saw it boosted yields and suppressed weeds. "We already were planting covers after soybean harvest, but Penn State had a four-year program to expand cover crop use, so we began planting soybeans green in covers and including cereal rye and wheat in the rotation," Myers explains.

"I'd been impressed with cereal rye since the year I had a drill half-full of rye during deer season, and I planted in 2 inches of snow," he recalls. "I had no idea what would happen. We had a thaw in January, and there was no sign of it. Finally, in March, the field was green, and that convinced me you can plant rye just about any time."

Corn yields on the more productive fields in the system topped 100 bushels per acre, but the poorer soils dragged down the overall average. Soybeans averaged 35 to 40 bushels per acre, with 2023 yields topping 60 bushels. By planting soybeans as early as possible in green rye cover and then terminating the cover shortly after planting, the standing rye shields the tender seedlings, improving the overall stand.

In 2020, the Myers family downsized the farming operation and enrolled the back half of the property in the Conservation Reserve Program. At that time, the remainder of the farm was put into an oat-soybean rotation.

"We planted soybeans into green cover crop, harvested the beans and planted a winter wheat cover crop, burned it down in the spring and planted oats," Myers explains. Oats yielded 100 bushels in 2021, which exceeded local averages and expectations. In 2023, however, drought held yields to 75 bushels per acre.

KEEP IT GREEN

Following the 2023 oat harvest, they planted a 60-pound-per-acre multispecies cover crop that included 12% wheat, 9% buckwheat, 9% Austrian winter pea, 9% sunflower, 5% tillage radish and 5% clover.

"The winter wheat and radishes provided good soil-holding benefits despite cold weather," he says. "As long as we keep cover crops growing out there, even on low-residue crops like soybeans, we can maintain our low soil-loss figures and continue building soil health."

Myers says the farm will be rented in 2025 to another "conservationist at heart," so the conservation legacy of the property will continue.

"I'll be spending more time with my wife and enjoying the retirement property we own, and continuing to speak on conservation issues with the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance," he says. "Of course, I'll be preaching 'Soil is meant to be covered.'"

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