Keeping Those Fields Covered

By Time Eisenbeis | Feb 3, 2017

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in January 2017, as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

When Paul and Charity Ortman moved to East Freeman back in 2010, it was a trial period to see if farm life was indeed for them. Having grown up here on the farm, Paul had been away for several years after college and now was coming back full of idealism for the vocation.

He knew he needed to learn the realities of modern mainstream agriculture so he settled into working with his dad while also working off the farm. He soon realized that the farm his parents had managed for decades was a well-oiled machine, not obviously in need of changes. Paul began to wonder if he’d have any special energy, practice or approach to make it better.

But hard times have a way of showing you things, if you’re paying attention. Along came the drought of 2012 and it hurt on the Ortman farm, too. They noticed, however, that some fields fared far better than others. Paul saw that those more resilient fields had had livestock on them, had been well-manured and/or had grown more of a crop rotation than corn and soybeans.

The following year, Paul grew a fantastic corn crop on some newly-purchased land that had been in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The problem was that the corn would not dry down; “the plants are too healthy” was his agronomist’s explanation. This drove it home for Paul: crop rotations and diversity are essential.

That fall, he planted his first cover crop of winter rye on 20 acres right after harvesting corn silage. The following spring, he was alarmed by the rapid growth of the rye but no-till planted soybeans directly into that mass of 3-foot-tall vegetation. Soon after, he killed it with glyphosate and watched closely what the beans would do. Would they have the soil contact to germinate? Would they be too shaded by the still standing rye stalks? Over the summer he was delighted to see the soybeans come up just fine and grow, while the rye slowly became a thick carpet on the soil surface.

That soybean crop showed a definite yield advantage over other soybean fields without the rye cover crop. Although it is hard to know precisely why, it stands to reason that several factors had a part to play: the increased moisture retention, soil surface temperatures remaining fairly constant, and the proven herbicidal qualities of substances released by dying rye roots.

Pleased with the results, Paul saved some of his own rye for seed and the following year planted cover crops on 100 acres and by 2016, most of their fields had grown or were planted to some type of cover. He has diversified his crop rotations to include wheat and barley, thus creating more time in the growing season for cover crops to flourish. He inter-seeded clover with his wheat crop and then after wheat harvest, sowed a 7-species mix (radish, lentils, sorghum, etc.) for fall grazing. Their beef cattle enjoyed the substantial salad for weeks and gained weight right on into mid-December.

Reflecting on where he got inspiration for all of this, Ortman was quick to mention Dan Harnish, a local farmer and agronomist with Mettler Fertilizer who has broad experience with and a deep passion for cover crops. Specifically, Dan advised him on what seed to choose for his multi-species mix. All along, Paul was motivated by YouTube videos by Gabe Brown (ND farmer and cattleman) and Duane Beck (research farm manager near Pierre, SD). He also compared notes with a few local farmers who have also been experimenting themselves with various uses of cover crops.

All this requires more management and flexible decision-making. The benefits of increased yield and weed suppression are not always there and other goals are long-term, so what makes it worthwhile? For Paul, the goals are a mix of the practical and philosophical. Obviously, he wants higher crop yields, maximum use of the growing season to produce cattle feed and to reduce the need for off-farm inputs, all of which translate into economic advantage.

But more profound, he is aiming for “regenerative agriculture”: improving the soil he farms. Primarily, he wants to build carbon in the soil, thus increasing the soil organic matter. Admittedly a long-term goal and multi-faceted, but it jives squarely with his theology and worldview about the roles of humans in the created order. He finds that he is most satisfied when observing diversity in growing things. To focus on promoting growth brings him far more joy than figuring out how to kill this or that undesirable.

Besides, he adds with a grin, “I might as well provide community entertainment while I’m at it,” a reference to people’s reactions when seeing him no-till drill something directly into that sea of green rye just starting to head out.

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America.