When Sara and Kevin Ross look out over their hilly southwest Iowa farm, they see more than just their conservation efforts at work. They also see land that's been in their families for more than 100 years, and that drives them to do what they can to preserve it for the future.
Keeping soil in place for their corn, soybean and alfalfa acres is essential for Ross, a sixth-generation farmer from Underwood, Iowa. "We have four young boys -- Hudson, Axten, Hollis and Carver -- and maybe one or all of them will be interested in taking over. Who knows?" Ross said. "But, if it's not them, hopefully it will be somebody else caring for the land the same way we do."
As Ross moves into a leadership role as the first vice president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), he's invested in helping educate himself and other farmers about how to better protect their soil and improve its health. That's why he actively participates in NCGA's Soil Health Partnership, a program designed to show farmers how sustainability through soil health can also lead to increased profitability.
"We've been involved since the beginning to help promote cover-crop research," Ross said. "On our farm, we did it a couple years even before the program officially started in 2014. We flew on cover-crop seed to see how that worked and had a problem with germination, mostly because we lacked rainfall at a critical time and didn't get good seed-to-soil contact. We've also direct-seeded and have had better success with that."
Typically, Ross plants about 20% of his acres to cover crops, sometimes as early as August, and as late as December, depending on weather and harvest schedules. "So far, we've had more challenges than successes, but we're determined to stick with it," he said.
THE RIGHT MIX
Although he's tried different cover-crop mixtures during the years to prevent soil erosion and take up extra nitrogen and phosphorus, what he's had best success with -- at least for now -- is a mix of rye, triticale, radish and peas. "The idea is to try and keep things growing in the soil to increase the organic matter," he said. "You need that living organism and healthy bacteria to keep the soil alive and promote biodiversity."
Seeding at roughly 1 bushel per acre costs about $20 to $25, but it all depends on the application method, he said. Aerial is the most expensive.
Ross believes in the benefits of cover crops but added: "You have to manage them differently and integrate them into your farm situation. Every year is a new challenge, so you have to work at figuring out what's best for you."
Last fall, he participated in a local field day that demonstrated different approaches farmers try to make cover crops successful and profitable.
In addition to crops, Ross also has a 140-head cow/calf herd, and every year, chops about 20 acres of corn for silage for feed, leaving exposed soil subject to erosion. That's where the cover crops really help. "They put growth back on that soil to replace the corn residue we took off. Our hope is that rain will hit that cover crop and keep the soil from washing away."
Ross has been almost exclusively no-till for more than 10 years. He, like other farmers in the area, has long been convinced that farming with contours and terraces save soil. Now, cover crops are adding that next layer of protection.
"Cover crops are part of my long-term strategy for soil health, because I recognize that visible changes take time to understand and evaluate," Ross explained. "We're also hoping they come with profitable outcomes.
"It's selfish to think your farm is just yours. It belongs to the future," Ross said. "I like to follow the Boy Scout rule: Leave it better than you found it." And, hopefully, that applies for the next Ross family generation.
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