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Revitalizing Growth: Chris Hardie’s Cover Crop Flourishes

The soil, which serves as the lifeblood for farmers, is vital for their sustenance, making its preservation a paramount concern. Caring for the soil goes beyond the application of fertilizers and chemicals; it entails nurturing, enhancing, and maintaining it not just for the present but for the future as well. Proper soil management includes practices like effective manure utilization, crop rotation, erosion prevention, and safeguarding the valuable top layer of soil.

A key aspect of soil conservation is the utilization of cover crops—crops grown to shield the soil, which can later be integrated into the soil to enhance its quality. In our region, these crops are typically planted in late fall and plowed under in the spring.

Reflecting on the past, I recall the springtime rituals of clearing winter manure heaps and spreading them across the fields before planting. While my father didn’t sow cover crops due to the rush to harvest corn before winter, he did pioneer the adoption of no-till planting.

Last autumn, I had one of my long-fallow fields, overrun with grass and weeds, plowed and sown with winter rye in late October. Despite facing a deluge of 10 inches of rain the day after sowing, I was initially skeptical about the seed’s survival. However, with the onset of spring and the warming of the soil, a lush carpet of rye now adorns the field, poised to suppress weeds and enrich the soil when it is eventually turned over for corn planting.

The trend of using cover crops is on the rise, as indicated by the 2022 Census of Agriculture. The total acreage dedicated to cover crops has increased by 17% from 2017 to 2022, with Minnesota and Wisconsin ranking among the top 10 states in cover crop cultivation.

According to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, cover crops not only boost crop yields but also promote pollination, enhance soil resilience in extreme weather conditions, and aid in carbon sequestration to combat climate change.

Studies conducted by SARE reveal that farmers can anticipate a 3% rise in corn yield and a 4.9% increase in soybean yield after five years of consistent cover crop usage. In drought-prone years like 2012, the yield benefits were even more pronounced, with reported increases of 9.6% in corn and 11.6% in soybeans.

The surge in cover crop adoption has been significant, with industry experts like Dan Foor, CEO of La Crosse Seed, noting an eight-fold growth in cover crop seed demand. Foor attributes this growth to the heightened recognition of cover crops’ pivotal role in nurturing healthy and resilient soil.

Maintaining the health and vitality of this life-sustaining resource remains a critical endeavor for farmers and the agricultural community as a whole.

Chris Hardie, co-owner of Brambleberry Country Inn and Winery and CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance, is a former reporter at the La Crosse Tribune and former editor at River Valley Media Group.