ASHLAND — Cover crops are a win-win for farmers: they reduce erosion, build organic matter, improve water quality and even help suppress weeds.
But, unlike other long-term conservation practices, planting cover crops requires and annual commitment and expense.
That’s why Ashland Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is once again offering a variety of incentives to producers who plant cover crops in the county.
“In Ashland County, cover crops are even more important than in other parts of the state because of our topography,” said Erica White, Ashland SWCD technician and Jerome Fork watershed coordinator. “In the southern part of the county, we have those higher slopes that really need winter cover to prevent erosion, and in the northern part of the county we have a lot of concerns with compaction and standing water.
"Cover crops can help with those issues, too.”
Cover crops are plants that are planted with a primary purpose of covering the soil instead of being planted primarily for harvest or as a cash crop.
Cover crops are a long-term investment in soil health, but because soil biology changes incremementally over time, event though improvements begin taking place in their first year of planting, it may take several years before the cover crops yield a positive return on investment.
“Cover crops are like a field of mini super heroes,” White said. “They can battle compaction by breaking through a plow man, improve biodiversity and attract pollinators, and they can help counteract our changing weather patterns.
"They can increase soil’s organic matter to help hold and retain more water during intense rain events, and a mat of cover crops in the field can also help prevent the moisture that is in the soil from being lost to evaporation during drought events.”
All of these benefits combined with cover crops’ filtration powers can make significant impacts on water quality. That’s why Ashland SWCD’s board has identified growing cover crops in Ashland County as one of their top priorities, and the district is committed to offering numerous incentives for Ashland-area farmers to utilize cover crops of their farms.
“One of the programs we are most excited about this year is that we have been able to bring a cover crop interseeder to our farmers here in Ashland and surrounding counties,” White said. “Interseeders are a different approach to cover crops. Instead of drilling or aerially seeding cover crops in the fall like we’ve traditionally done, interceders plant the cover crop into an existing cash crop like corn or beans about six weeks after the cash crop is planted.
“The cover crop starts to establish, but because the cash crop has a head start, its canopy shades out the cover crop, slowing its growth. The result is that when the car crop is harvested in the fall, the cover crop is already established and in-place in the field, so farmers don’t have to battle unpredictable fall rains to get their cover crop seeded. When the canopy opens up at harvest, the cover crop really takes off, and the soil is never without cover and protection from erosion.”
Ashland SWCD’s interseeder was made possible through the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District’s (MWCD’s) Partners in Watershed Management grant program. That’s why the interseeder will be available to rent at a reduced rate of $5/acre to farmers located within MWCD’s jurisdictional boundaries, both in and outside of Ashland County. It is also available to farmers outside MWCD’s boundaries for $10/acre.
MWCD has a long-term commitment to supporting cover crop use in Ashland County through their cost-share program, and this year they will once again be offering cost-share for up to 200-acres of cover crops within MWCD’s boundaries. Additional incentives are available to first-time producers.
“Ashland SWCD also participates in a cover crop soil health cost-share program through MWCD, where we identify the most vulnerable acres in the county and offer additional incentives for more intense cover crop management practices like early seeding,” White said. “We expect this year’s cost-share to be at a similar rate for the soil health cover crop program, up to $25 per acre.
"We expect our other MWCD cost-share programs to have similar rates for 2021 as well, right around $12 per acre for the traditional program and around $15 per acre for the first-time participants.”
Additionally, Ashland SWCD offers reduced no-till drill rental rates of $10/acre starting in July to use for cover crop establishment. During the spring, their drill rental rate is $12/acre.
This will also be the third year Ashland SWCD will coordinate a county-wide aerial cover crop seeding program in early September.
“Aerial seeding is a great option for a lot of our farmers,” White said. “We have large farmers who use the program as insurance to seed a portion of their acres in cover crops so they don’t have to worry about finding the right weather winds to get back into all of their fields a second time after harvest. And we also have smaller farmers who use the program, especially if they have another job off the farm.
"There’s a lot of value in the time-savings they have knowing that someone else has already taken care of their cover crop seeding and that their cover crop is going to be in place protecting their most valuable resource: their soil.”
Last year Ashland SWCD had several producers participate in the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative’s (OACI’s) Beginning Cover Crop program; this five-year program utilizes the county’s aerial seeding program to demonstrate the benefits of cover crops to first-time users of the practice.
“It’s going to be exciting to continue to watch these fields over the next four years,” White said. “With a longer-term commitment to cover crops in those fields, we really expect to see some great results in terms of soil health.”
For more information about participating in any of Ashland SWCD’s cover crop incentive programs, contact White at 419-289-4248 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.