Trusting Cover Crops Pays Dividends

Pierceton, Illinois farmer Jamie Scott has been preaching the gospel of cover crops for 10 years.

At the recent Innovative Farmers of Ontario annual meeting in London, Scott described how his father was his first and toughest convert. When he told Jim Scott that his idea to plant cover crops on their farm would cost US$54 an acre, Jamie’s farming career almost came to a screeching halt. “My dad said ‘you might want to find another job’,” he recalls with a smile.

But his father is now a believer thanks to a corn crop that consistently delivers “40-bushel better corn” and uses less fertilizer, insecticides and fungicide. And there have been many more converts. Today, Jamie Scott plants cover crops throughout his 2,000-acre no-till cash crop farm and runs a successful cover crops consulting business serving 400 farmers and managing 100,000 acres.

Scott speaks with conviction when discussing the benefits of cover crops – from increased organic matter, reducing erosion, increasing water and nutrient holding capacity as well water filtration – but it’s more than just talk. He believes farmers too often focus on the cost rather than the benefits. However, when you actually experience the impact cover crops can have on your farm you trust them, he says.

It the last four years, Scott’s cover crop regime has been tested by both drought and monsoon rains. “2012 was a drought year in our area, 2015 was what I call the monsoon season – 30 inches of rain in a month. That’s when you build trust in those systems,” says Scott who describes his soil as a big sponge that holds moisture longer in dry years and keeps it from evaporating or washing away. “In a monsoon year, we are going to have more area to hold rain,” he adds.

His farm doesn’t always look the best, but it delivers when it counts. “My dad used to say that we never play a football or basketball game until halftime – we play it until the end for a reason,” says Scott. “Every year with our system, we’re equal to or better than any other system out there. Going through a monsoon or drought season, you learn to build trust. Just sit back and let it do its thing – it’s gonna win in the end.”

Scott is always willing to share what makes up his 13-way cover crops mix. It includes: legumes (cow peas, sunn hemp, cahaba vetch, yellow sweet clover and crimson); grasses (sorghum sudan, millet, oats); brassicas (rapeseed, turnips); and broadleaves (sunflower, buckwheat and phacella). But what’s in the mix really depends on where you farm and your soil needs.

So what’s Scott’s key to cover crop success? First on his list is planting timing. He uses a plane to fly seed over 60,000 of the acres he manages. The sheer size of the task requires planes, but it also allows for much earlier planting.

Scott notes that the difference between planting on Sept. 7 versus Oct. 7 in his area adds up to 1.5 hours of daylight and 12 degrees F. “You’re actually losing a lot by waiting that extra month or sometimes two months before getting crops off and the cover crop in…. Over the years we’ve seen the benefits – added root growth, taking out compaction, taking in sunlight, taking up nutrients. That timing is everything and we have to get it started as soon as we can to get those benefits out of it,” he says.

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