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Farmers report significant yield increases when using cover crops, even in drought

By Wes Nelson

Farm Service Agency

WILLMAR — Based on the detailed results from a survey of producers, a recently released report indicates that during the 2012 drought, corn and soybean yields improved significantly following the planting of cover crops.

Under a partnership agreement between the Conservation Technology Information Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s North Central Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, more than 750 farmers, primarily from the Upper Mississippi River watershed, were surveyed during the winter of 2012-13 regarding their use of cover crops.

Some of the main findings from the survey include:

* During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops. Likewise, soybean yields increased by 11.6 percent.

n In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11 percent yield increase for corn and a 14.3 percent increase for soybeans.

* Surveyed farmers are rapidly increasing the amount of acreage devoted to cover crops. With an average of 303 acres of cover crops per farm planted in 2012, farmers indicated that they intended to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops in 2013. Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012.

* Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from planting cover crops. Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management, and reduced soil erosion were the other major benefits cited.

The increase in crops yields on fields previously planted to cover crops may seem somewhat surprising during a drought year, considering that cover crops would also utilize precious soil moisture. However, the key is what cover crops do to enhance the soil’s moisture retention capability.

While cover crops use some water in the soil profile to grow, they also improve soil structure by building soil aggregates, protecting the soil’s surface and enhancing the recharging of soil moisture levels through increased infiltration.

Including cover crops with diverse annual crop rotations also increases the soil’s organic matter — an important factor in retaining moisture since each 1 percent increase in organic matter results in a 25 percent increase in water holding capacity, and up to 30 additional pounds per acre of available nitrogen.

Research also indicates that cover crops consisting of a single plant species are not as effective in improving soil health as cover crops that consist of several plant species planted together.

Common cover crops that can be utilized in central Minnesota include: winter barley, winter cereal rye, sorghum, sudangrass, winter wheat, alfalfa, red clover, winter triticale and millet.

To learn more on how to incorporate the use of cover crops into your farm’s cropping rotation, contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service office at your local USDA Service Center.

To view the entire report regarding the use of cover crops, visit the Conservation Technology Information Center’s website at

USDA food assistance programs benefit 10.5 million worldwide

During the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Progress and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition programs will benefit more than 10.5 million worldwide.

Under the programs, USDA purchases U.S. commodities and donates them to government agencies and private voluntary organizations in targeted countries.

Under the Food for Progress program, recipients in developing countries and emerging democracies sell the commodities and use the funds to introduce and expand free enterprise in the agricultural sector.

For example, a Food for Progress project in Mozambique supports dairy farmers’ efforts to improve herd management practices, while increasing both the volume and quality of milk. The project also helps dairy cooperatives collect, store, process and market milk effectively, benefiting 27,000 agricultural producers and 3,000 businesses.

The McGovern-Dole program focuses on low-income, food-deficient countries that are committed to universal education. Participants either use or sell the donated U.S. commodities to support education, child development and food security.

For example, in Kenya, more than 650,000 children in approximately 2,000 schools have been fed with help from the McGovern-Dole program.

The commodities that USDA is donating include U.S. produced bulgur, corn, corn-soya blend, dehydrated potato flakes, lentils, pinto beans, rice, split yellow peas, sorghum, soybean meal, soybean oil, vegetable oil and wheat.

Both the Food for Progress and the McGovern-Dole programs are administered by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. More information on the programs can be found at

Septic loan

funds available

An estimated 57 percent of the septic systems throughout the Hawk Creek watershed do not meet current state code, and many of those systems pose a serious health and water quality threat.

Low-interest loan funds to update non-compliant septic systems are available to watershed residents. However, funds are not available for new home construction or upgrades that are required due to home additions.

There is no collateral required as loan payments are collected through a special assessment on your property tax statement for a term length of 10 years. Loans can be transferred to new owners if a property is sold or transferred.

For more information, call your local County Environmental Services office. The phone numbers are: Renville County – 320-523-3768; Kandiyohi County – 320-231-6229; Chippewa County – 320-269-6231.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.