Sweat bees, butterflies, and most importantly, ladybugs floated around a sorghum plot at Kauffman Seeds, Inc. south of Hutchinson.

Farmers came in droves to the field plot, too.

Attracting beneficial insects, such as ladybugs that kill sugarcane aphids, was one of the advantages associated with planting cover and companion crops discussed at a cover crop field day hosted by Kauffman Seeds and Cheney Lake Watershed, Inc. Tuesday, August 21.

The day began with plot tours showcasing cover crop seed mixes available at Kauffman Seeds, soil health and the sorghum companion crop plot. The afternoon featured presentations from cover crop innovator Steve Groff and Osage City, Kansas farmer Keith Thompson, as well as a panel discussion.

“We want to think about productivity and profitability with protecting, or really enhancing, the environment in mind,” Groff said at the sorghum companion crop plot. “That’s really what this is about.”

Fighting nature with nature

The sorghum plot included buckwheat, legumes and even flowers like zinnias, as cover crops between the rows. The companion crops not only cover the soil, locking it down and staving off weeds but each offer additional benefits, according to Groff and Thompson.

Legumes can share nitrogen with sorghum, buckwheat attracts earthworms to the field, and flowers attract beneficial insects to serve as a biological pesticide.

The sorghum can also be harvested as a cash crop.

As far as strict cover crops, Kauffman Seeds co-owner Tom Clayman showcased several seed blends. The blends spanned several varieties of forage sorghum or forage grasses, and each included other plants like mung beans, cowpeas, buckwheat, Sunn hemp and more.

“I don’t know what kind of tonnage difference we’ll get with this, but I’ve suffocated out some of that pigweed,” Clayman said. “It’s not growing, which is good to know, especially if I plan to put seed back in this field.”

Pigweed, or Palmer Amaranth, has become synonymous with evil in many farm circles. The plant overtakes corn and soybean fields, destroying yields. With no competition, a single plant can produce over 1 million seeds that remain viable for several years. Even with competition, a single plant can produce 100,000 or more seeds.

In recent years, herbicide-resistant pigweed has shown itself.

But as Clayman pointed out, cover crops between rows of forage plants can help choke out some of the pigweed, allowing for easier control and less herbicide reliance.

“The first thing you don’t want to cheat on with cover crops is seed. You have to have enough to cover the soil,” he said. “I know that costs money, but think about the difference between applying herbicide once on soybeans instead of twice.”

Clayman pointed out that he was not against herbicides or pesticides, but simply encouraged farmers to look at the options available to see what could be most profitable for their operation.

“Why do we kill everything that mother nature gave us to do it our way?” he said. “She’s good at her job; sometimes we just need to give her the opportunity to do it.”

No-till management

Groff agreed when he spoke during the day’s afternoon program hosted at Journey at Yoder church.

Groff farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and was one of the developers of the Tillage Radish. He now serves as a cover crop coach and educator, while still farming. Groff’s farm has been completely no-till since 1995, and frequently uses cover crops to enhance his cash crops and soil.

But he said it has not been a quick turn-around.

“There is complexity to cover cropping to be successful,” Groff said. “You have to think about cover cropping as a 10-year plan.”

Groff described cover cropping as a tool that must be managed, just like equipment. He provided a few easy tips to get farmers started toward a successful program:

Treat your cover crops like your cash crops. Be serious about it. Be prepared.
Have a mentor, someone ahead of you in cover cropping that can make you think.
Learn all you can.

Groff listed his goals as trying to be as diverse as possible, in both his cash and cover crops, as well as reducing his pesticide and herbicide use.

He also wants to preserve and enhance his soil.

“Every time we have soil erosion, we don’t blame the tillage or tillage equipment,” Groff said. “But if something goes wrong with cover crops, we immediately blame them. They are just a tool; sometimes the problem is the management.”

Not tilling helps conserve soil, but so can cover crops, according to Groff. Cover crops prevent erosion, as well as adding biomass and nutrients back into the soil.

“It’s the good stuff that blows,” Groff said, speaking of topsoil. “We want to keep that stuff in place.”

Groff offers weekly webinars as well, available by subscription online at CoverCropInnovators.com.