7 Things I Learned By Planting Cover Crops

I have been using cover crops for 4 years now in Central Illinois, and it has been a fun ride.  My interest in covers began with wanting to improve my soil engine, or soil biology and to reduce my dependence on fertilizer.  With a background in biology and a passion for it, I was convinced that there had to be a better way to farm my acres, and I wanted to unlock my soils potential.  So, here are a few benefits and pointers I have learned about covers crops.

  • You CAN see results in Year 1… Increased water infiltration, reduced compaction, better soil structure, and drier and warmer Spring soils are real, in the first year.  The best way to raise your yields is to bring the lower yielding areas up.  If you have ponding typically in your field, covers will definitely help.
  • The real benefits come in subsequent years… There are a tremendous amount of nutrients in the soil, but most of them are tied up in the soil colloid.  How do we access these nutrients? Microbes and fungi are the key to unlocking these nutrients! And living roots in the soil colonize these helpful microbes and fungi.  The more roots in the soil for longer periods of time, the more soil life works for you.
  • Organic matter is built underground… Less than 1% of the dry matter on top of the ground is converted into organic matter.  Most of the action of building organic matter (which is definitely possible, up to 0.1% per year), occurs underground.  The more diverse mix of roots, the more organic matter will be produced.  Cover crop mixes are phenomenal for helping raise OM.
  • Radishes are like Red Bull to Earthworms… If you can put radishes in your mix, you WILL see earthworm populations increase.  Earthworms are an excellent indicator of soil health and provide many benefits, such as exudates (waste), water infiltration and biological tillage.  I do not have cows or hogs, but I am a livestock farmer…. Earthworms.
  • Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress… You may not have a cover crop stand that looks like a golf course, or wheat field, or a cash crop.  Many growers will see a less than perfect stand, and consider it a failure.  IT IS NOT.  Something growing in the field is better than nothing growing in the field.  What ever is growing in the field is capturing sunlight, converting it into carbon, and feeding the microbial life.  We should strive for great stands in our cover crops, but don’t let a spotty stand, deter you from continuing to try them again.
  • Try them with no out-of-pocket money… Talk to your NRCS office about trying cover crops on a small part of your farm, in order to get familiar/comfortable with them.  There are short term programs that can help get you started.
  • There is a bunch of help out there… Social media has allowed an awesome amount of sharing and learning to take place much faster than ever before! Search Twitter for #covercrops and follow those people that are commenting.  (You can follow our journey at bzimmrmn) You will get the good, the bad, and the ugly.  You can also get bleeding edge practices that are being tried, and you will find something that you can use.  On Facebook, ‘Everything cover crops’ and ‘cover crop innovators’ are great groups to join for being able to ask questions, post pictures, and get feedback for your operation.

The best time to experiment with cover crops is last year.  The next best time is this year.  Try something on a small amount of acres and see for yourself.  I promise you, it will become a healthy addiction! Shift your mindset, and big things will happen!!


All the Best,

Brad Zimmerman

What is Your Soil Trying to Tell You?

soiltesting 101

Did 2017 leave you scratching your head at how to make money farming?  Let’s change that in the upcoming season! Let us add value to YOUR farm this season! 🌽 Join our Facebook LIVE at 11 AM tomorrow if you’d like to…

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February’s Best Farm Advice – From Farmers


10. ” Never borrow more than you can pay off in 5 years, real estate is the only exception to this.” -Rich

9. ” If a grain dealer gives you advice go ahead and do the opposite” – Daniel

8. “Take care of the cows and they will take care of you!” Amy

7. “You can have anything if you work hard enough for it.” Colin

6. “Never turn your back on the Bull…..” -Timothy

5. “If you won’t learn to work hard when you’re young when are you going to work.” Michael

4. “Buy all the land you can.” Casey

3. “Walk when others run and vice versa.” Colin

2. “If you don’t have time to fix it right when will you have time to fix it again?” Mark

1.” If God is your partner make your plans big.” Tyler

Soil Sampling is Crucial for Success

soil sample 1

One of the most important parts of a great nutrient management program is soil sampling. Often times it is easy to forget or put off soil sampling for time or cost reasons, unfortunately that may come with a large price the following growing season. Not having an understanding to the fertility in your soil can be the difference between ok yields and great yields. The best way to remedy a nutrient deficiency is to fix it before it presents itself in the plant. Additionally, soil sampling can save you, as the grower, money on inputs by knowing exactly what your soil needs to maximize crop potential. This allows you to put your input dollars where they are most needed, and not spent on things that aren’t necessary.
You can sample yourself if that is what you choose to do, all you’ll need is

  • A clean bucket (plastic preferably as to reduce risk of contamination from the bucket)
  • Sample bags which can often times can be purchased or even obtained for free from your lab
  • Push-type probe with an 8” sample tube (We recommend probes sold by Midwest labs you can contact them at 402-334-7770)
  • A method of transportation such as an ATV or UTV.

Hiring a professional soil sampler is also an option. Sample prices can vary from $2 per acre to as much as $10 per acre depending upon lab analysis included (if any), and sample type. We recommend hiring a third party sampling company like Profound Ag to ensure the best (& unbiased results)
Whenever possible, whether sampling yourself or hiring it done, it is important to know these basics of soil sampling.

  • Try to sample your fields at the same time of year every time you have them sampled if possible. If you sample a field in the spring this year, try to have it sampled in the spring the next time as well.
  • The most reliable results will be before any heavy tillage is done and any fertilizer or manure is applied.
  • Multiple random sample areas throughout a field will allow for the best representative data and you’ll want to take samples at 6-8” of depth.  Multiple cores taken at a consistent depth is crucial for sample accuracy. Additionally 10-15 cores is typically needed for each sample, or in some cases your lab bag will have a mark to which it should be filled.
  • Any core that looks odd in anyway, or pulls differently than the other
    cores in the same area should not be used as these inconsistencies could affect the end results.

Be sure to get a complete analysis when choosing a sampling package with your lab. The only lab we recommend is Midwest Labs. While N-P-K values are important you also need to know the other components of your soil as well.

These components include:

  • Macro and Micro-Nutrients. These are the other essential nutrients beyond Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus.
  • On your analysis these will often be listed in parts per million (ppm) and will include such things as Sulfur, Boron, Copper, and Zinc.
  • Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC). This measurement is used to show the ability of the soil to hold cationic nutrients.
  • Organic Matter (OM). OM is exactly what it sounds like. The organic material (animal or plant residue) in the soil that crucial for soil quality by providing storage for nutrients, increasing water retention, and enhancing soil structure.soil test

When looking at soil test results it is easy to flip right to the “recommendations” page and skip over the actual data. You’ll want to take a look at your data and look for things that may need to be addressed. We always recommend that you visit with your nutrient adviser if you don’t feel comfortable deciphering the information on your analysis report. If you are looking for someone to help you in this area LET’S CHAT! Soil sampling will allow you to address any potential issues before they occur, and get on the track of remedying any existing issues with your soil.

Happy, healthy soil results in happy, healthy plants and ultimately better yield.


Special thank to Dan at Profound Ag for helping us with this article.  You can view his blog here.