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Cover Crops Mitigate Costs and Weather in Michigan

The AgroExpo in St. Johns, Michigan hosted many speakers. The Shaws, a farming couple, spoke about cover crops, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy.

Ryan and Melissa Shaw run SKS Farms in the thumb region of Michigan. The couple described their transition to strip till and different types of cover crops. In areas of Michigan, it was generally thought that the temperatures get too cold for cover crop usage. Ryan Shaw says, it’s a matter of trial and error, and that you need to find the right ones and make a plan.

Cereal rye was a fit for them in that they’ll grow roots in the wintertime with low temps like 34-35 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, Shaw says, it’s finding the right fit

“We have shortened our maturity of our soybeans up a little bit just so they will come off maybe a week earlier so we can get that extra week of growth. So, we started playing with some of the fields that do winter kill like a buckwheat, but it does grow really fast, so we toss in anything else in there that we can and see what it will do in our region. So, we’re definitely always learning each season.”

Cover crops can help mitigate the damages caused by severe weather.  

“We have found, quite a bit, that if we can get the cover crops out there and get it to shade the ground that shading the soil has a lot of effect, that if it’s just bare and raw out there where you start to get the caking and the cracking and everything, that we’ve noticed a lot of water retention with it. And when we get these heavy rains and the crops are quite small, if you still have some covers between your cash crop, it keeps the dirt from splashing up on your cash crop and kind of helps mitigate some of the disease factors that you could see with those heavy downfall rains.”

As for offsetting inflationary costs and carbon use, Shaw says, “We noticed a huge difference from our conventional tillage where you would go out and you may take a ripper out in the fall, or after a wheat stubble and think, ‘Well, I can make that look flatter or smoother,’ and pretty soon you’ve worked that field two or three times. Where with our strip till machine, we’re going out there one time in the fall and you spend a lot more time making your plan and your fertilizer recommendations, and how you want to go attack this field individually. And then you can make that one pass, and we’re only burning ¾ gallon of fuel per acre, so it was a huge cost savings in just the fuel that we were putting through our machines. So, we actually were able to sell off a few tractors because now we don’t need as many of them to just pull this one machine.”

For someone starting cover crops, Shaw says the key is planning.

“How do you want to terminate it? Most guys will start out with something that will winter kill if you’re far enough north like we are here in the thumb region. You can use that to your benefit, as where some guys don’t have that hard frost that will kill some of the covers. Know what you want to do with your planter. How do you want to plant into that? Do you want to terminate it and have it dead to be able to still do tillage? Because you don’t want it to still be green, or a heavy mat still trying to go through and till it.  Mostly, have a good plan A, and possibly a plan B.”

Shaw says they continue to experiment and try different cover crops, and different coverage amounts. He says along with saving money on fuel and tractors, they’ve also saved on chemicals. 

“We’ve actually used the cover crops for like the inter-seeding, is to eliminate a post herbicide spray in our corn. It wasn’t an immediate savings, we reallocated that money to something that was beneficial that will give back to the soil.” 

Shaw says that cover crops will show a return four or five years down the road, but hopefully for the next generation.

Find more information, check out The Nature Conservancy.