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Two-day National Summit to feature ‘cover crop addict’

 By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

VINCENNES, Ind. – A weed field specialist, a research agronomist, a soil scientist, a professor of earth science and eight experienced cover crop growers will address attendees of the Spring 2021 National Cover Crop Summit, March 17-18.
The summit is a free, two-day online event that features a series of knowledge-building presentations taught by the foremost authorities on cover crops. Highlighted will be 12 cover crop speakers who have expertise in managing cover crops, improving soil health, minimizing weed pressure, reducing erosion, using covers as forage for livestock, increasing on-farm profitability and more.
Atop the list of speakers will be no-tiller and self-described “cover crop addict” Bill Buessing, of Axtell, Kan. Buessing will discuss how he adds various cover crop species to crop rotations as forages for his cattle and sheep to graze on his 600 acres while building soil health and fixing nutrients in the soil, which has allowed him to cut back on fertilizer.
“For me it starts with feeding the soil biology on my farm,” said Buessing, whose talk is entitled ‘Maximize Livestock Feed Resources with Cover Crops’. “I try to have a living root in the soil at all times. I also make sure there is some litter on the surface of the soil, be it green or dead vegetation. I also use a bit of manure. I want a diverse cover crop mix and diverse things in and above the soil.”
Buessing maintains a cash crop or cover crop mix on every acre of his farm year round. He said cover crops have allowed him to reduce nutrient runoff, retain and utilize more water, slow down wind erosion, help with weed control, help build organic matter in the soil, recycle nutrients and build nitrogen for present and future crops.
During his presentation, Buessing will share results from his experimental plots, where he tests more than 40 different types of covers and blends.
“Everything in the soil has to be about Mother Nature,” Buessing said. “There’s lots of different plants and animals species out there, so the more diversified your fields are the more diversified your soils will be and we need to try and mimic Mother Nature.”
Buessing will attest why he calls cereal rye his “workhorse,” though he utilizes up to 40 different cover crops in his blends. His individual blends may contain up to 18 different covers, depending on whether they’re used strictly as forage or in rotation with cash crops.
“Cereal rye does a lot for your soil,” Buessing said. “It’s the closest thing to a silver bullet that we’ve found.”
According to Buessing, cereal rye, which he typically seeds around 50-60 pounds per acre, has the biggest root system of any winter cereal, so its roots can help break up hardpans in the soil. In addition, the root system uses extra nitrogen from the previous crop and stores excess nitrogen for future crops, while adding carbon to the soil and building organic matter as well.
His forage mix is spread out so he has forage available for his cattle all year. Cattle are moved to cool-season pastures after leaving the winter cover in spring, then to a summer blend planted in May. “If you feed the soil, the biology works for you,” he said.
As with any crop, pests comes into play. Grower Daniel Olsen, of Lena, Wis., will explain his success of breaking pest cycles with full-season cover crops. Olsen grows corn one year, then follows with a year of cover crops. He utilizes full-season annual cover crop cocktail mixes as forage for his 1,200-acre dairy, where he milks 400 cows with his family. The mixes, he said, help break the rootworm cycle in his corn crop.
“In the past we used to do four years of corn, followed by four years of cover crops, but we’ve discovered the best success comes by using cover crops between years of corn and that helps eliminate the perennial component in our farm,” Olsen said. “Our mixture of cover crop species allows our corn acres to be much more productive.”
Olsen said he was looking for a good source of fiber in forages for his dairy cows and found that using his cover crop mixtures.
“We have learned to grow that forage fiber right here on our farm,” he said. “Cover crops are high in digestive fiber. It also allows us to eliminate a lot of those purchased inputs that we were normally putting into their diets.”
Olson has eliminated alfalfa and implemented a crop rotation including triticale, sorghum-sudan grass, Italian ryegrass and clover that is harvested three times.
Gared Shaffer, weed field specialist at South Dakota State University, will discuss preventing uneven cover crop establishments and what factors result in higher herbicide effects on cover crops. Kip Balkcom, research agronomist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, will help attendees understand how management factors can affect cover crop performance and show how to maximize the potential soil health benefits of cover crops.
Joel Gruver, associate professor of soil science & sustainable ag at Western Illinois University, will discuss how solar corridor planting systems create new opportunities for successfully intercropping cover crops with corn on conventional and organic farms. He will stress how strategic adjustment of crop spacing can increase cover crop productivity while minimizing loss of crop productivity.
Dave Montgomery, professor of earth & space sciences at the University of Washington, said that cover crops can be part of a three-prong approach to restoring soil health, including reducing tillage and crop rotation. He will explain why growers should “park the plow” to minimize soil disturbance.
Six other growers with extensive experience with cover crops will also address attendees.
For more information about the summit, call 866-839-8455 or email