Focusing on the Future with Cover Crops

POET’s research begins a multi-year study into the proper uses of cover crops, stover removal and tillage variations.

In mid-August, a pair of Emmetsburg, IA-area farmers planted cover crops – oats and tillage radish – on a total of 220 acres on two test plots that, over the next few years, could be some of the most scrutinized, most soil-sampled, most monitored and most marketed farm fields in the country.

On those 220 acres, POET, in partnership with Monsanto, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Iowa State University, the National Soil Health Partnership, AgSolver and others, has planted the seeds for future research – at 40 pounds per acre, using a prototype Hagie Interseeder that allows summer planting of cover crops before harvest without aerial seeding. This land will yield research results in three areas important to the near future of agriculture: crop cover, stover removal and tillage methods. One plot will test crop cover and varying degrees of stover removal. The other plot will monitor crop cover and tillage methods, comparing the effectiveness of normal tillage to reduced tillage to strip till.

While the study has been in the works for three-plus years, its importance seems to be at an all-time high.

The increased need for biomass has driven the demand for stover removal, which has not only served to help manage residue but has also added a revenue stream for some farmers. Many Emmetsburg-area growers have seen the benefits of that firsthand through Project LIBERTY, POET-DSM’s commercial-scale cellulosic biorefinery.

And the recent Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, in which the utility is suing three Iowa counties for allowing nitrates from farm fields to pollute drinking water, has helped move the long-underutilized and overlooked practice of planting crop cover to the forefront of farming.

It’s not a new concept. The history of cover crops dates back thousands of years and has been practiced by ancient Chinese, Indian and Northern European farmers who us by keeping the grower in center focus,” says Kevin Coffman, Market Development Lead in Ag Environmental Strategy at Monsanto. “Part of the early learning and preparation has been listening to the growers. Growers know their fields. Growers know their soil. And growers are impressive innovators. They are always looking for a way to improve their system and sustain their investment in the land.”

That farmer-first mentality has been a focus since these test plot discussions began three years ago, according to Alicia ElMamouni, Associate Biomass Research Scientist at POET Biomass. “We know we need to get the farmers to understand that this will be an important part of the future of their farming practice,” says ElMamouni, who has parlayed her Peace Corps background into a career in biofuels. “Once they see the increased benefits, the farmers will drive this research.”

“This study is a unique coupling of cover crops, stover removal and tillage management” says Dave Muth, Senior Vice President at AgSolver, a software company partnering with POET to turn the in-field data into long-term projections. “We believe these three ideas are the cornerstone to developing the next generation of residue management in agronomic systems.”

POET and its partners chose two cover crops: oats and tillage radish. Both take root relatively easily, both are hardy and both die over the winter, meaning farmers don’t have to worry about termination time come spring. And, more importantly, both reduce erosion, increase the microbial activity and nutrient cycling in the soil, capture and store carbon in the soil and reduce excess carbon and nitrogen.

While the idea is not new, the farming landscape has been dramatically reshaped in the last few decades, shifting to an agricultural system with far less crop diversity than it had in, say, the 1970s. Today, according to the USDA, the total land area in some Iowa counties is more than 90 percent corn and soybeans. That means less pasture area, less oats, less alfalfa. Winter crops, in many regions, have become almost nonexistent.

“We’ve gone from a system where you’d have something growing in the winter, to having nothing growing in the winter,” says Kaspar. “Cover crops are a long-term investment to protect and preserve your soil.

We need to make that investment. We need farmers to be able to see that.”

Adam Wirt has played a pivotal role in pitching the benefits of various POET processes – such as the baling and selling of biomass – to area farmers. So he understands the importance of the Iowa test plots as a real-world, hands-on marketing tool. And the plots will be used as a marketing tool, with everything from roadside signage to newspaper ads to public tours of the farm fields.

“There has been a lot of talk about the benefit of cover crops, but unless you can see and touch things, they aren’t a reality,” Wirt says. “We’re trying to create that reality for growers. These are the men and women who will drive the future of farming, and we can give them that data, and show them that reality, that will help them map out that future.”

Right here, on 220 acres in Iowa, POET and its partners hope to give those growers the kind of real-life results that could lead to long-term advancements in agriculture.

Despite the fact that the seeds are still relatively fresh in the ground, every single person involved in the Iowa test plots will tell you they have already learned something. Whether it’s from the research on the viability of tillage radish or from the interviews with growers with a long history of cover crops or from poring over the data on nitrogen retention, the three-year preparation process has already yielded tangible results.

It may take years of soil samples, nutrient analysis, biomass production and collection, residue data and thousands of data points, but every single person involved in the Iowa test plots will also tell you that these 220 acres could change the future of farming.

“This study symbolizes a long-term commitment to the advancement of agriculture,” says Wirt. “This study already includes important partners working together to create publicly accessible information that will benefit everyone. This could change how we view everything from residue removal to cover crops. We want to share this.
This is much bigger than just who we are.”



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