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How Seeding Cover Crops Can Slash Your Fertilizer Bills

No-till pioneer David Brandt shares how he uses varied mixes of covers to build and recycle soil nutrients and notch major reductions in input costs.


PROLIFIC SCAVENGER. Carroll, Ohio, no-tiller David Brandt typically likes to seed brassicas as a ‘trap crop’ to pick up nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) that corn plants may not have used. A 5-year trial he did in cooperation with Ohio State University found 250 pounds of N, 23 pounds of P and 230 pounds of K that were recycled by oilseed radish and present just ahead of spring planting.


David Brandt may like the nice, green color his fields take on after one of his cover crop mixes emerges. But he also likes to see another kind of green — the color of money.

This bottom-line view of cover crops became a habit starting in the 1970s and 80s, when he was working mostly with red clover. Through strip trials he found that it only provided him 60 pounds an acre of nitrogen (N).

“I’m kind of a greedy farmer. If I plant something, I want to make some money — so our cover crops have to make money also,” Brandt says. “I didn’t feel getting only 50-60 pounds of N was enough to justify what we were trying to do. We kept looking for things that would produce more N.”

Three-Way Rotation is Key

Brandt’s goal is to get 100% of his 1,150-acre farm near Carroll, Ohio, covered with some kind of cover crop. He’s hit about 90% of acres the last 3 or 4 years.

He’s turned this bottom-line approach to evaluating covers into a science…

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John-dobberstein2

John Dobberstein

John Dobberstein is senior editor of No-Till Farmer magazine and the e-newsletter Dryland No-TillerHe previously covered agriculture for the Tulsa World and worked for daily newspapers in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Joseph, Mich. He graduated with a B.A. in journalism and political science from Central Michigan University.

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