Under Cover

In exchange for a little TLC, Rich Bennett’s fields produce healthy yields of grain, while saving him fertilizer, herbicide, fuel and time.

By Karl Wolfshohl | Photos By William Jordan

Rich Bennett

Rich Bennett

Winter and spring winds can whip up and carry unprotected particles of sandy topsoil off the land. It’s a problem that’s plagued farmers since well before the advent of modern agriculture. One solution to the problem—the use of cover crops—is also very old, but it’s been put aside, if not forgotten, by many producers.

Rich Bennett, his wife, Jeannie, and informal partner on the farm Ken Griffith haven’t forgotten and employ the practice each year on their farm in northwestern Ohio, near the town of Napoleon. As a result, they conserve their valuable soil, not to mention improve it, as well as save money on fertilizer and fuel. They do this while maintaining average yields of corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,100 acres.

“My goal is to keep something growing, to put some value-added material and organic matter back into the soil to produce the next crop,” says Rich Bennett. “Our yields are comparable to others in the area, and we don’t have to use the high levels of fertilizer that we once did.”

His soybeans normally yield 40 to 60 bushels per acre, and his corn is in the 165-bushel range. By using cover crops, he figures he saves 30% on the cost of fuel, fertilizer and herbicide—the rye also acts as a weed barrier. There may be a slight yield decrease from a reduction in fertilizer, but it isn’t much.

“My yields may be 5% off from my neighbors’, but no more than that,” he says. “We still band fertilizer in the row, and the covers help release the bank of nutrients tied up in the soil. It’s a win-win.”

Rich adds another “win” to the mix by reducing tillage. “No-till soybeans into rye saves at least two passes with a disc or finishing tool, and that saves $7 per acre in fuel costs,” he says. “There’s the added benefit of soil protected from wind and heavy rains, plus rainwater infiltration through the rye root structure through the soil, leaving no standing water.”

It’s easy to tell the difference in soils that have benefited from cover crops, according to Rich. Water may stand for many days in other fields, but for one day at the most where there are cover crops. There’s also a difference in the smell of the soils.

“When you continue to feed microorganisms into the soil, it can’t help but improve,” he says.

Rich and his rye.

Rich and his rye.

Rich used to incorporate red clover and hairy vetch into their wheat, and these would remain as a nitrogen-giving ground cover for the following corn crop. He would chemically kill the legumes and plant corn into the terminated crop in spring. However, he has ceased the practice because of the difficulty of getting a stand of clover or vetch in his area, as well as the cost of cultivating and working the crop into the soil. Now he relies on rye as a cover crop, anytime it’s feasible.

Again, such practices aren’t new. Rich’s dad used rye to keep the soil from blowing before his son left a teaching job to return to the farm in 1972.

Rich later gave up on rye cover, but in the mid-1980s he attended a sustainable farming workshop sponsored by the nonprofit Rodale Institute. Rodale programs combined with equipment improvements persuaded him to plant cover crops again. Rodale also convinced him to scale back on commercial fertilizer.

In all likelihood, Ken Griffith, who has gradually been working his way into the operation with the Bennetts for 4 years, will continue to use cover crops in the future. “He doesn’t have a choice. He will be using cover crops,” Rich laughs.

The Bennetts once had livestock but sold out, freeing the couple to spend winters at a mobile home club in Palmetto, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There, they act in plays, help elderly residents, play bingo and shuffleboard with friends, and hit the beach on warm days. In late March they return to Ohio with batteries charged, ready for planting in their fields of green.