Consider the Case of Cover Crops


A new report from the activist group Mighty Earth says that America’s taste for meat and the crops that support it are “driving widespread water contamination across the country, destroying America’s last native prairies, and releasing potent greenhouse gases.”

For evidence, it points to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” a large area near the delta of the Mississippi River, where high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus and low levels of oxygen can suffocate aquatic life. According to experts, this year’s dead zone is larger than normal due to heavy rainfall in the Midwest.

To address this problem, Mighty Earth proposes a new cause that’s fit for a bumper sticker: Pollution-free feed. The group singles out Tyson Foods but in fact wants all meat processors to force crop farmers into adopting a series of practices to prevent soil erosion and absorb runoff, which contribute to the growth of the dead zone each summer.

Here’s the irony: We’re already doing it.

As an Iowa farmer who grows corn and soybeans to feed my hogs, I’m always striving to provide my customers—including Tyson Foods—the very best I can deliver. I’m also aware of agriculture’s impact on the environment and constantly searching for ways to improve. Compared to a ten years ago, we’re using far fewer resources to produce a pound of meat.

Tim Burrack uses drone technology to check an Iowa field.

This ongoing success doesn’t require shaming campaigns, consumer incitements, or the threat of litigation. Instead, it merely requires farmers to enjoy access to the technology and innovation that helps us meet the twin goals of production and conservation.

Sometimes the solutions are amazingly simple.

Consider the case of cover crops. I started using them about five years ago as a way to protect soil health.

All summer long, I devote my farm acreage to corn and soybeans. Most of it becomes animal feed for hogs, chickens, and cattle.

Following our harvest in September or October, we plant cereal rye in these same fields. It grows in the fall, sits in the winter, and grows again in the spring. The plants can reach several feet high if we let them. Then, without tilling the soil, I no-till plant my corn and soybeans directly into that field for another season, lessening the human impact on the environment.

The cereal rye is a cover crop—and its single purpose is to protect our land when we’re not in Iowa’s traditional growing season. The roots of these plants cling to the soil, building organic matter.  They guard against erosion and prevent water from draining away phosphorous and nitrogen.

This serves both economic and environmental interests. By making my soil healthier, cover crops give me a better yield later. By fighting the problem of soil erosion and runoff, cover crops are also a tool of conservation.

It turns out that farmers can do well and do good at the same time.

Five years ago, I knew next to nothing about cover crops. Then I heard about them and started to experiment. I liked the results. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine from Argentina, he laughed: He’d been planting cover crops for a generation.

Argentinian farmer and GFN board member Roberto Peiretti checking no-till oats on top of harvested corn.

We often talk about how American farmers can educate farmers in other countries, especially the developing world. The advent of cover crops in the United States shows that learning is a two-way street, and that global farmers can teach us new technologies as well.

As I understand it, farmers in Ohio were among the first cover crop adopters in our country. Since then, the concept has spread—but the practice is far from universal.

More American farmers ought to take it up. I’ve held demonstrations on my farm and I’m confident that cover crops will become increasingly popular. They make so much sense.

Will cover crops make my farm pollution free? No way. Agriculture is an outdoor business. We’ll never be totally free from pollution. Let’s not kid ourselves.

My experience with cover crops, however, suggests that while we can’t conquer Mother Nature, we can learn to work with her—and adapt our farming in ways that allow us to conserve our resources and improve the soil while we grow the food and feed that hogs need and people want.

*Note – this column also appeared in The Des Moines Register.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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One thought on “Consider the Case of Cover Crops

  1. · August 25, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Great cover crop and more article, and am especially happy that the DM Register published today. Need more like this.
    NE Iowa Farmer Darrel Branhagen