Jeff Rasawehr (pronounced “Raise -a- veer”) farms 1500 acres in West Central Ohio, raising corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, and some beef. His goal is to produce beef in an ecologically sustainable way, and, of course, to be financially viable. His path towards that goal involves cover crops that improve his soil and become forage for his cattle. He calculates the result as a $200 per acre bump in profitability. Last week as he rode through Iowa on his way to the National Hay and Forage Expo, we took advantage of his drive time to talk by phone about how this works for him.
Thirteen years ago, Jeff started planting cover crops. He’d been farming for 17 years, since he was 16, and he’d started to see that the organic matter content of his soil was on the decline. All that time, he’d been baling hay and forage. The realization that 17 years of haying had been changing his soil hit home, and turned into an effort to fix the problem by using cover crops in his rotation for soil remediation.
Jeff noticed that “if you maintain soil biology and soil health, phosphorus in soil goes up.” Improving soil biology makes the nutrients in the soil more available. Soil organisms will consume and excrete nutrients and make them into forms that are plant available. By working to enhance soil biology, Jeff found that he made more money.
As Jeff explained it, keeping the soil covered was more cost effective than taking off the cash crops and fallowing the land until the next season. It works like this: On his stretch of land, and on most soils in his area, the nutrients are already there, just not necessarily in forms the crops can take up. Cover crops helped feed the soil organisms. A healthy community of soil organisms cycles the nutrients into plant-available forms for him, and with this improved soil biology, the nutrients already in the soil became available to the crops he was trying to grow. That means that he doesn’t have to apply nutrients, he just takes advantage of what he’s got. Jeff calculates a savings on nutrient applications at $120/acre, once he got the biology of the soil up and rolling. That, he figured, took about five years to get going.
While he’s improving the soil, Jeff does add some amendments, namely some nitrates and some trace fertilization. He also likes Zeolite, or volcanic ash, in a one-time application. It has a high CEC (cation exchange capacity) and improves nutrient utilization.
Now, when he takes soil tests, he finds the organic matter in the soil has increased from less than 2% into the 3% range and climbing. He’s also seeing phosphorus and potassium (P and K) going up, without having added any himself.
Jeff says he owes it all to cover crops. He tries to plant as diverse a mix as possible. As we talked, he groaned about the hayfields of fescue he was riding past. “Hay guys have trouble keeping fertility because they don’t have the diversity,” he said. “The monoculture mines the soil… cheap fescue with no legumes in it.”
To avoid that, Jeff plants a mix of cover crops, drilling straight into his no-tilled fields. Within 24 hours of soybeans coming off in September and October, he’s planting cover crops. He alters the mix as it gets later in the season, but he generally plants peas, throwing in grass, tillage radish and barley.
On other fields, where he is growing wheat through the winter, he harvests the wheat in the spring with a cover crop that he chooses depending on what the summer looks like. If it looks like it’s going to be a hot and dry summer, he plants a mix with sorghum sudangrass. If not, and he has no manure to spread on that field, he’ll plant peas and oats. When manure is available, he’ll use annual rye with crimson clover and oats. In areas where nitrogen is needed, he goes heavy on the crimson clover. And he usually throws radishes into any summer mix, as they are great boosts to soil biology.
He’s got reasons behind his choices. He likes the rye and the oats as scavengers, whose roots take up nutrients that might have been lost through leaching or runoff. Some of those plants’ roots may also produce an exudate (like a slime) that encourages relationships with mycorrhiza that also help incorporate the nutrients.
Jeff’s seed costs run about $25-30 per acre. Jeff’s a pro at mixing the seed, and has made it part of his business model. Three years ago, he started the company Center Seeds, selling seed for forage and cover crops. He’s passionate about the different varieties and why he chooses to plant one over the other. For example, he is thrilled with Rootmax annual rye, saying it produces 140-150 tillers, and a softer, more palatable crop that digests more easily than other annual rye. Yes, he admits, you can plant a cover crop of straight barley for $12/acre, but that’s a monoculture, and that won’t build the soil the way a mix would.
The money he spends on putting in cover crops is paying off in other ways as well. Instead of feeding his herd of 100 black angus as he always has, Jeff has begun grazing his cover crops. He says grazing is a heck of a lot easier than hauling manure and harvesting and storing feed. He still harvests a lot of them, but hopes to move that over to more and more grazing as he increases the herd size. They are upping their cow numbers slowly as he and his family get more comfortable balancing grazing with the rest of their farming operation. He’s found that when he uses the cover crops to graze beef, he sees profits bump up even more, making $300-400/acre more than the average neighbor. I’ll be talking with Jeff more about this revenue stream and sharing his methods in another issue of On Pasture.
At some point, Jeff will change his system. But for now, the soil has an overabundance of nutrients, and he’s using cover crops to capture them. The soil health and Jeff’s bottom line are winning as a result.