Friday, November 4, 2011

Cover Crops, Airplanes, and Indiana Conservation Districts!

I am holding a big tillage radish planted this fall in Gibson County.
Indiana Agriculture Director, Joe Kelsay, and I, along with our conservation partners recently had the opportunity to visit with the Warrick, Posey, Vanderburgh, and Gibson County Soil and Water Conservation Districts to learn about a successful project they have worked on for the past 3 years.  This projects' objectives center around increasing the amount of cover crops utilized in these 4 counties.  They do this by coordinating aerial seeding application with local farmers and they provide cost-share for them to participate.  Here is an article written in the local paper explaining this project and for more information on cover crops visit Midwest Cover Crops Council....
Soil, water conservation partnership spotlighted

PRINCETON — Four local soil and water conservation districts were recognized Thursday for a joint partnership that they say has made southern Indiana water cleaner, soil healthier for crops, and created habitats for local wildlife through the winter.
    The initiative began when Gibson, Posey, Vanderburgh and Warrick Counties banded together to apply for a grant to support a cover crop program, said Travis Gogal NRCS District Conservationist for Gibson County.
    Cover crops are important to soil health, Gogal said, because planting a cover crop feeds microbes that keep the soil alive and make nutrients readily available for crops. Better soil means better, cleaner water, and the crops help local animals have a habitat throughout the winter.
    According to Gary Seibert, of Fort Branch, who works with the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, it’s also important at a global level.
    Farmers in Indiana spray their crops with nitrogen to help them grow, but if something happens to the crop, and it doesn’t use all the nitrogen, the nitrates go down into the soil, then down to the water, and eventually washes out to sea, contributing to the Gulf Stream Dead Zone, killing fish and plant life.
    But Seibert believes that the same processes that the planet uses to grow forests and natural wilderness can work for farmers thanks to nutrient recycling. “There are more plants available we weren’t aware of before,” he said. “There’s a learning curve.We’re learning to grow cover crops to create our own nitrogen. We’re thinking like nature.”
    In the woods, he said, even in the winter, roots are growing, winter species of plants grow, and it keeps the soil healthy. Radishes, for example, can soak up the extra nitrogen, and then make it organically available to the spring crops. With the right cover crops Seibert says farmers can replace between half and three quarters of their nitrogen by planting crops like Australian winter peas, radishes, crimson clover, and annual rye grass for the winter to store the leftovers and even create nitrogen.
    “No one fertilizes the woods, tills the soil. One plant supports another, and we’re trying to do that too.”
It takes a change in mindset for a monocultural agricultural society to pick up the trend, he said.
    The practice is good news for the economy, too, said Seibert, because nitrogen is getting more expensive, and the United States is competing with countries like India and China in food production.
     The difficulty for the farmers was that the time you plant a cover crop is critical, and sometimes must be done before a main crop is harvested—to do that required aerial seeding, so the separate districts applied for a grant that they won to help cover those costs together. Farmers interested in planting cover crops would come in and apply.
    “Crop rotation is kind of an art,” said Gogel. Cover crops are just one aspect of that art. Most of the time, he said, the individual farmer talks to people in his local co-op to decide what kind of cover crop will best support his primary crop. In this area corn, soybeans and wheat are the common primary crops.
    Farmers applied for the aerial seeding of the cover crops across the four counties in the last two years. Over 1500 acres were aerially seeded with an additional 800 acres conventionally seeded.
    According to Jennifer Boyle Warner, of the IASWCD,part of being chosen for a showcase is that other districts across Indiana will see the projects that are working successfully in the showcases.
    Videos of the winners are shown to an audience of 400 people associated with the districts so that ideas can spread. The idea has also spread among farmers, who most of the time already know what they want.
    “It’s important to come down and recognize the local leaders, because they’re the ones doing all the work, said Roger Kult, who came from Indianapolis to represent the Indiana Conservation Partnership. “We can talk at the state level but doing it at the grass roots level makes it happen.” He said farmers see how well it works, see the success of the program, and choose to seed on their own for the good of their land.
    Already the grant for 2012 has already been approved, meaning that the program will enter its third year, and Pike County plans to join the initiative next year.
    “This is the first year they’ve recognized the districts in this way,” said Gogel. Four out of 10 projects that applied for the showcase were chosen. “It shows our ability to work with surrounding counties.”
    Liz Rice, of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, agreed. “What I’ve heard is that our partnerships are really strong in Indiana. It’s something we can be proud of as a state. We’ve done a lot of really good work over here.”

Root penetration in the soil is an important factor associated with the benefits of growing cover crops.  Here is Gary Seibert looking for nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots of crimson clover cover crop.  We get excited about agronomy and soil health, he has quite an audience!!!  Thanks Gary!

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