Published September 22nd, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Nick Guetterman only walked a couple of rows into his ready-for-harvest corn before spotting his cover crop seedlings.
Just six days prior, he seeded the field with a rye-heavy cocktail of seeds. Already, little shoots of green punctured the ground between the crispy stalks of corn. What looked like tiny blades of grass now would grow to protect Guetterman’s field from soil erosion all winter long, and later, help feed his soybean crops.
A cover crop is a non-harvested, supplemental crop planted with the intention of preventing erosion. According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, cover crops not only prevent a cash crop from washing away, but help to improve overall soil health.
The better the soil is on a piece of land, the more profitable it becomes, so agriculture producers are always looking for more efficient and sustainable ways to take care of their soil.
Soil conservation became a topic of discussion after the Dust Bowl. The catastrophic event was brought on by a series of droughts, but could have been mitigated had farmers at the time been more conscious of soil health.
During World War I, American farmers, enticed by the high crop prices, tore up native prairie lands to plant row crops of wheat and corn. When the long droughts came, nothing was left to hold the soil in place and it blew away.
Since then, farmers have been more conscious of preventing soil erosion and bettering soil health. Cover crops have emerged as a way to mimic the natural cycles of these lands by providing continuous coverage for the soil and putting nutrients back into the soil. It’s getting back to the roots, literally.
“Without soil health, we don’t have good crops,” Guetterman said. “We have learned that our best crops are grown where the soils are healthiest.”
Guetterman Brothers Family Farm introduced cover crops into its no-till operation in 2011 and has since been a leader promoting and educating the practice to other farmers.
But this was far from the first effort by the Guettermans towards soil conservation.
“I would say our conservation efforts have been ongoing since my grandpa started farming,” Guetterman said.
Guetterman’s grandfather started with 80 acres in Bucyrus, Kansas, when he returned from duty in WWII. Having lived through the Dust Bowl he was always worried about water and the soil.
Guetterman said there were ponds all over the property and his grandfather never tilled the soil because he was conscious of preserving the soil’s health.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s terracing the land was a popular way in managing soil erosion. It was a costly and labor intensive process, but some of these original terraces can still be seen on the Guetterman Brothers’ now almost 12,000-acre property.
As Guetterman’s father took over the farm, they began to follow traditional row crop practices which involved tilling the soil, though Grandpa Guetterman wouldn’t let anyone turn the soil on his original 80 acres.
Conservation efforts on the Guetterman Brothers farms were upped again in the early ‘80s when the farming recession made the industry look for alternative ways to make the land more profitable.
Guetterman’s father heard about the no-till methods at a Kansas State Extension conference during this time and decided to implement the practice on his farm.
“We always built terraces on our land to try and curb soil erosion and he was always disappointed in the amount of erosion, even with the terraces, and it was hard to maintain the fields because of all the erosion after big rains, so he thought this ‘no-till’ might help with that,” Guetterman said.
No-till practice means simply that the farmers don’t till the soil. Tilling is primarily used for weed prevention and for seeding purposes, but in a high-hydration environment like eastern Kansas, tilling can make soil erosion more likely.
According to data from the 2017 census, Kansas had 11.2 million acres farmed under no-till practices. It had the highest no-till acreage of the nation with Nebraska behind it at 10.3 million acres. Further down the list, Missouri claimed 4.6 million no-till acres.
The large-scale corn, soybean and wheat farm continued to be on the forefront of conservation efforts. The family started to farm the original Guetterman’s 80 acres after he passed away and found the soil which had been protected by pasture land was their most productive area.
When Guetterman first learned about cover crops around 10 years ago, he saw it as a way to mimic how his grandfather had taken care of the land, and he implemented the practice.
“We’re trying to mimic what happens in perennial grasses, or native grass, trying to mimic what nature intended on our other fields to improve them,” Guetterman said. “And we are seeing improvements, I think, to them.”
The Guettermans aren’t alone in their efforts for healthier soil and sustainability. The federal farm bill for 2018-2023 allocated significant funding for conservation programs, which Kent Askren, the director of public policy for the Kansas Farm Bureau, said is very supportive of improving soil health.
The bill allocates funding to programs like Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which fund the implementation of certain sustainable practices on farms.
“It’s a significant amount of money that is used to help cost share various conservation practices, all that deal with, amongst many other things, soil and water conservation,” Askren said. “That plays a significant role in helping with the working lands of our nation and trying to incentivize those practices that are good for soil and water conservation.”
Askren said more and more farmers are planting cover crops across the state. At the same time, he said the method doesn’t work for everyone.
The eastern edge of the state could receive over 40 inches of rainfall a year, while the western end might only get 14 inches in a year. This makes the state of Kansas diverse in soil and water issues.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” Askren said. “There are different things that work for different areas and different operations.”
Conservation districts in eastern Kansas, formed in the wake of the Dust Bowl, are increasingly working to prevent the silting of federal reservoirs that serve as drinking water sources for the region. The Kansas Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) offers grants to farmers for the implementation of cover crops.
Funding from these programs allowed Guetterman to figure out the practices that work best for his farm.
“We’ve had good results and good luck but we’re still learning a lot on how to manage cover crops and which covers to use,” Guetterman said. “That’s what’s been good about things like the EQIP program that provides assistance is, it helps us to try something that we wouldn’t try without that funding.”
Support for this is important because even though the Guettermans have used cover crops for 10 years, it hasn’t been a straightforward path to success.
“It’s been a journey for sure,” Guetterman said.
Here’s how the cover crops currently work on Guetterman’s farm:
Just before harvesting his corn (usually in September) Guetterman uses a tall machine to seed the cover crop between the rows of corn. By the time the corn is harvested, the cover crop seedlings have sprouted and taken root of the soil.
By seeding the cover crop before harvesting the corn, Guetterman ensures the soil is never sitting bare, but always has something to absorb water and put nutrients back into the soil.
On the same piece of land, Guetterman will seed his soybean crop into the rye, just as it begins to flower (usually around Mother’s Day). Then he’ll use a roller to mow down and eliminate the rye. The rye then covers the soil surrounding the soybeans (it looks like hay) and works to keep the soil in place and acts as a barrier to weeds.
The mowed rye works much in the same way that mulch does in a flowerbed.
Guetterman will seed the rye into his soybeans just before harvesting them in late September or early October.
The rye will protect the soil and fill it with nutrients throughout the off season in preparation for a new crop of corn to be planted the following spring.
Because rye and corn feed on the nitrogen in the soil, he will have to kill off all of the rye early into the corn’s life to eliminate competition between his cash and cover crops.
Implementing a cover crop into farming practice is nothing short of a science.
“You’ve got to know how to manage the cover crop or, in the short run, your cash crops can yield or produce less because the cover crop is inhibiting the growth of the cash crop,” Guetterman said.
For example, if he didn’t roll down the rye after seeding the soybeans, the soybeans (cash crop) wouldn’t get any sun through the rye (cover crop) which would overtake the field.
Even with the roller, he still had rogue strands of rye sticking out through the sea of soft, green soybean leaves.
He’s also learned when to seed the cover crop to maximize its effectiveness.
“You’re going to get much more benefit from your cover crop by planting it early in the fall to get more growth,” Guetterman said. “I’ve heard one day in September is worth two days in October and three days in November.”
If Guetterman didn’t plant a cover crop, the land would be barren for 7-8 months between corn harvest and soybean seeding. A lot can happen to a big field of dirt in just over half a year. With a cover crop, he knows the soil is staying in place.
“So you’ve got six, seven months out of the year where there’s nothing going on in that field, so you’re missing out on six months of photosynthesis,” Guetterman said.
Those extra months of photosynthesis mean more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is being absorbed by these plants and put back into the soil as nutrients the cash crop can feast on.
Guetterman pulled up the mowed rye from the floor of his soybean field to show the richness of the soil. It wasn’t cracked or eroded. The top of the soil looked almost porous.
An area without the cover crop is visibly less hospitable and at a lower elevation as each rainfall has taken a thin layer of the soil with it.
While he’s figured out a lot, each year presents a new challenge.
“It’s not all glamorous,” Guetterman said. “Because our soils are becoming more healthy, we’re creating a habitat for varmint.”
Large holes littered a barren patch in the field, Guetterman said it was the work of hungry voles, a pest he commonly deals with.
This particular patch didn’t get the rye rolled down. Guetterman said rolling down the rye has been efficient in blocking the voles from eating the beans and digging up their roots.
“You have to learn how to manage these things,” Guetterman said. “New, great things bring on new problems too.”
The more research that is done about cover crops, the better farmers can implement the practice without risking significant losses.
The Guetterman farm has partnered with Kansas State University and Kansas Corn Association for a seven-year research project that will provide farmers with data-driven recommendations on cover crop implementation.
Guetterman’s nephew, Hayden Guetteman, attended a young farmers conference several years ago, which led to the opportunity for the Kansas Soil Health Partnership.
The partnership means the Guettermans get to farm like usual and researchers can gather data from an operating farm.
“As farmers, we’re busy doing the day-to-day operations on the farm, and planting and taking care of the crops and we just don’t have a lot of that time to dig into that data and process all of that,” Hayden Guetterman said.
Research from Guetterman’s farm will provide other farmers with cover crop suggestions they can follow because it comes from a working farm rather than a test field.
Carlos Pires is a doctoral student working under Charles Rice, who is heading the partnership with four farms across the state. Pires has worked with Hayden Guetterman to test the soil and monitor the yields of a 50-acre crop on the Guetterman property.
Pires said the researchers observe the practices of the four involved farms, rather than control the operation, to create practical recommendations for Kansas farms.
“Everything is exactly, 100% like the farmer should do it, we are not doing anything different than that,” Pires said.
Pires said the partnership allows for extension opportunities like field days on the Guetterman farm to teach other farmers in the region about soil conservation. Since the start of the partnership, more than 500 Kansas farmers have attended field days.
“Our ultimate goal is to have more farmers in Kansas using cover crops to improve soil health,” Pires said. “Our research goal is to generate data-driven recommendations the farmers can use to improve productivity and sustainability.”
Now in the third year of the seven-year project, Pires has observed small improvements in the soil health but no substantial change in yields.
“We were able to see some biological differences in only three years,” Pires said. “Our data is showing that enzymatic activity is increasing and microbial biomass is also increasing in those fields.”
Soil health is not something that can be measured directly, but enzymatic activity, microbial biomass, texture and chemical composition are all elements Pires looks at to determine soil health.
He expects to see more improvements as the project goes on as soil health is important to the longevity of a piece of land and can take several years for substantial change to occur.
As a farmer, Nick Guetterman is seeing the same thing. He’s still waiting to see improved yields as a result of cover crops. While he hasn’t seen yields go up substantially, he knows the plots of land with cover crops will have nutrient-rich soil for years longer than those without.
Most importantly, Guetterman said his no-till and cover crop practices have made his farm more sustainable and better for the preservation of the environment.
While the consumer is focused on organic farming, Guetterman said his practices are pulling more carbon from the atmosphere, preserving the soil and preventing silt runoff.
“I would argue I’m farming more organically than an organic producer because I am taking organic carbon from the atmosphere (with cover crops) and putting it into the soil,” Guetterman said.
Soybeans, as a legume, are already great for the soil because they “fix nitrogen” meaning the beans pull nitrogen from the atmosphere, convert it and put it back into the soil in a form plants can absorb like fertilizer.
Guetterman has found soybeans growing in competition with rye end up producing more nitrogen than when planted on their own. The natural competition only adds to the list of cover crop benefits.
“As it is today our nitrogen sources use natural gas to pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere,” Guetterman said. “Well if we can do it organically with rye and soybeans to get more nitrogen into our soil, then that’s a great thing.”
Guetterman relies on herbicides and pesticides in his farming practices. In contrast, he said, an organic farmer would have to heavily till their soil.
“Tillage is like setting your soil on fire. You are oxidizing all of the carbon,” Guetterman said. “It basically destroys the soil.”
Pires agreed that in the long run the use of pesticides and herbicides with reduced tillage and cover crops is better for the soil than the current practices of most organic farms.
Right now, he said it’s very difficult for organic farmers to implement no-till practices because of the pressure from weeds and diseases. He hopes in the future, however, more organic farms will implement elements of cover crops by using organic material to cover the unplanted areas of their crops.
“We are not there yet, but maybe in the near future we will be able to (have) some organic farms with no tillage,” Pires said.
It’s not to say organic farming is bad, but rather that a farm without an organic label can still be doing a lot to preserve the environment.
Askren said the agriculture industry has changed a lot in just the last 10 years and is continuing to do so as farmers work to sustain their land.
“That’s their livelihood,” Askren said. “Farmers and ranchers make their living with the land. If the land isn’t healthy, it cuts into their operation and if it gets bad enough it could put them out of their operation.”
Askren’s best advice for someone curious about these initiatives is to go out to a farm and ask. The technology and specialized skills farmers possess can be shocking to someone not in the field (pun intended).
“Try and come out to a field day or get on a family farm somewhere and let them show you exactly what they do,” Askren said.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.