Plant diversity and covering the land has long been associated with more resilient soil. But experts say the integration of livestock via rotational grazing can also help reduce reliance on continuous plantings of fertilizer-intensive crops. And that’s where the Olmsted County Groundwater Protection and Soil Health Program enters the picture. The program pays farmers to plant cover crops, but it digs deeper to ensure that they get real results.
Research shows that allowing cover crops to grow to significant heights can dramatically reduce pollution. So, the program pays a farmer $55 an acre to grow their cover crops to at least 12 inches; at 24 inches, they receive an additional $20 per acre. Planting a cash crop within a living stand of cover crops, a technique called “planting green,” garners a farmer an additional $10 an acre. Farmers can also receive payments for growing so-called “alternative” crops such as oats and other small grains, and for converting crop acres to deep-rooted perennial systems like hay and pasture.
Each farm can qualify for a maximum of around $15,000 in payments per year. When Olmsted County SWCD staffers originally brainstormed with area farmers about setting up the soil health initiative, they considered a per-farm cap of $20,000 to $25,000. However, the farmers insisted on a lower cap so that more money could be spread around on more acres.
“I put $6,500 total expenses into seeding—the program paid back $3,500,” says farmer Logan Clark, who used the program to convert cropland to rotationally grazed pasture on his hilly, erosion-prone farm. “So, I’d at least be $3,500 more in the hole if I didn’t have the program.”
SWCD staffers say one advantage of the program is that because funding comes from the county—the commissioners agreed to set aside $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the program—rather than the USDA, they have more freedom to allow farmers to experiment and learn from their mistakes.
“I know farmers who have been cover cropping or strip tilling for decades … Now they are hungry for what’s next.”
Mark Stokes has been using no-till cropping for 26 years. Around five years ago, he noticed that even on his no-till acres he was seeing erosion, so he started growing cover crops utilizing traditional cost-share programs. He isn’t afraid to experiment—he’s grazed his beef cow herd on a mix of nine cover crops, and a few years ago, after seeing it being done on YouTube, mounted a seeder box on his combine so he can plant cover crops while he’s harvesting corn.
Stokes enrolled in the Olmsted SWCD program in 2023 to help cover the risk of yet another innovative practice. Through the contract, he agreed to plant his corn and soybeans into growing cereal rye green and terminate the rye after it hit 12 inches tall. It turns out the dry conditions made it a bad year to let a cover crop grow tall. On the other hand, the oats he raised in 2023 thrived.
When it came time to sign up for the 2024 round of the program, Stokes took advantage of its flexibility. “I signed up for more oats, so we don’t have to worry about the cereal rye so much, and if we have to, we can terminate it sooner.”
Not all participants in the program are going to check all five soil health principle boxes, but flexibility can serve as a seedbed for aspirational farming. Alan Bedtka wants to follow as many of the principles as possible. In 2023, he used the program’s funds to grow his cover crop to 12 inches. He also signed up to raise cover crops for seed production, which qualified him for the alternative crop portion of the initiative. Finally, his use of rotational grazing and the growing of forages on formerly row-cropped land qualified him for the haying and grazing payment.
“Protecting water quality is a perk, but the main reason I’m doing it is to try to be more profitable,” says Bedtka as he stands in a recently grazed cover-cropped field that he hasn’t had to add fertilizer to for two years. Nearby is an exposed limestone hillside, a reminder of the area’s vulnerable karst. Bedtka explains that his healthier soil absorbs and stores precipitation better. “So that means you’re growing more grass and more cows per acre. All the benefits are kind of tied up into one.”
Like Stokes, Bedtka is now able to take a more integrative, whole-systems approach with less financial risk.
“I know farmers who have been cover cropping or strip tilling for decades . . . Now they are hungry for what’s next,” says Kristi Pursell, who, when she headed up the watershed group Clean River Partners, supported farmers adopting practices to keep ag pollution out of southeastern Minnesota’s Cannon River. “The Olmsted SWCD program respects the knowledge that these farmers have of their land and their previous experience.”
Truckloads of Disruption
Soon after the Olmsted County program was launched as a pilot in 2022, 52 farmers signed up to grow tall cover crops—more than double what was expected. In total, they agreed to grow cover crops up to 12 inches high on over 5,300 acres and 24 inches on 2,700 acres. This year, over 70 farmers have signed up to raise cover crops under the program, representing almost 13,000 acres.
There are 240,000 acres of cropland in the county, so the majority of the area’s farmers aren’t participating in this initiative. But the program may be having an outsized impact on soil health. The SWCD estimates the environmental results of the program by combining the nitrate reduction directly observed on its own research farm with some of the wider research that’s been done. It estimates that in 2023, the program kept roughly 310,000 pounds of nitrates out of the county’s drinking water.
Surveys show that most farmers plant more cover-crop acres than they are getting paid for— something they can afford to do because the SWCD contracts pay so well, says Martin Larsen, a farmer and conservation technician for the district. When the SWCD includes those additional acres, the amount of nitrates being kept out of the water goes up to 560,000 pounds—or the equivalent of 23 semi-truckloads of urea fertilizer.
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Author: Brian DeVore