Growing up on a six-generation, family-owned dairy farm in Michigan, I remember helping my dad seed clover in the fall after harvesting corn silage. The goal was to produce some cheap fertilizer, protect the ground from winter erosion and mellow the soil prior to moldboard plowing, discing and planting in the spring.

But starting in the 1960s, interest in cover crops seemed to dwindle with the push for bigger farm acreages, wider implements, synthetic fertilizer and dealing with higher input costs. As a result, practices such as cover crops, that many dads and granddads had used faithfully for years, seemed to be swept to the side.

But that started to change a dozen or so years ago and no-tillers were among the first to once again recognize the many benefits of cover crops. Not only were innovative no-tillers keenly interested in reducing costly erosion, but they quickly saw the economic value of improving soil health and seeing the nutrient benefits that cover crops could provide in an inflation-rising economy.

No-Tillers Lead The Way

A survey conducted during last winter’s National No-Tillage Conference showed that 65% of attendees had seeded cover crops last fall. Among those attendees using cover crops, they seeded an average of 406 acres. (The No-Till-Age chart at left indicates the average acreages of specific cover crops that conference attendees seeded last fall.)

Room For Innovation

Joel Gruver, an agronomist at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill., says cover crops have many more benefits than the typical ones that quickly come to mind. For instance, he maintains poor soil health may be holding back soybean yields — something that might be fixed with cover crops.

Still others believe cover crops can be a cost-effective way of improving needed drainage without investing in costly tile lines. In fact, Gruver is convinced drainage may be the biggest management practice holding back yields with most crops. By adding 4 or more months of cover-crop growth, you may be able to avoid leaching concerns that are becoming more critical, even among no-tillers.

While there are significant soil-health advantages to working perennial crops into a rotation, the economics simply aren’t there for many Corn Belt growers. Yet, Gruver sees alternatives.

“A better option is to combine summer annuals like corn and beans with winter annuals,” he says. “There’s lots of data that shows cover crops reduce nutrient losses.”

But Gruver is quick to point out cover crops aren’t for everyone.

“You need to be a master adapter, figure out the technology that best fits your farm and tweak it to make it better for you,” he says.

While cover crops aren’t idiot proof and require better management, Gruver says they will definitely reward you.

That’s something veteran no-tillers have known for years.