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VIDEO: Farmers show more interest in aerial-planted fall cover crops

WAHPETON, N.D. — Brice and Daniel Bellmore watch the crop plane fly close over their small corn field on a late-summer day. They nod slightly as the rapeseed and rye seed drop from the plane, flown by veteran farm pilot Eric Klindt, onto the field of head-high corn.

“Well, it’s an experiment,” says Brice, a Wahpeton, N.D. farmer. His son, Daniel, who has cattle, is part of the family operation, too.

The Bellmores will harvest the corn this fall, and then turn out Daniel’s cattle into the field to eat the corn stover and what they hope will be a thriving stand of rye and rapeseed. Because they were planted from the air, before the corn was harvested, the rye and rapeseed will have more time to grow this fall, potentially giving the cattle more to eat. And the aerial planting didn’t damage the standing corn, as ground seeding would have done.

The Bellmores are part of a trend, still in its early stages, in which cover crops are seeded from the air in late summer or early fall onto fields of newly harvested or still-unharvested crops. Cover crops are drawing increased attention in the Upper Midwest, and so is planting them aerially in the fall.

“It’s not a big part of our business, but we’re seeing more of it,” says Klindt, a ag pilot for Wilbur-Ellis in Wahpeton. “People are trying a few acres to see how it goes. They’re experimenting,” His company markets and distributes agricultural products, animal feed, and specialty chemicals and ingredients.

Klindt estimates he’ll plant about 5,000 acres of cover crops this year, up from roughly 100 acres five years ago. Many of his fall cover-crop customers are ag producers for whom he does other work, such as chemical application, as well.

Cover crops, once grown mainly by farmers focused on organic and sustainable agriculture, are now drawing across-the-board interest. In contrast to crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans, cover crops aren’t grown for sale and harvest. Rather, cover crop — the long list of them includes radishes, turnips and rye — help to control erosion, break up disease and insect cycles, provide forage, and improve soil health, water quality and moisture availability.

Cover crops were planted on 10.3 million acres on 133,124 farms nationwide in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.

It was the first time the census, conducted every four years, asked about cover crops. By all accounts, cover-crop acreage has increased substantially since then, although hard numbers of the increase are hard to come by.

Cover-crop advocates want the number of cover-crop acres nationwide to rise to 20 million, twice the 2014 number, by 2020. Experts say the number 

of acres planted from the air will need to increase for that to happen.

Pros and cons

Planting cover crops from the air has both pluses and minuses, experts say.

The positives include:

  •  Large amounts of land can be planted quickly.
  •  The “growing window” is extended when cover crops are planted sooner. That can be especially important in the Upper Midwest, where the growing season is shortened by relatively early frost.
  •  Fields can be planted that would be too wet for conventional ground seeding.
  •  Unharvested crops aren’t damaged as they would be ground seeding.

The minuses include:

  •  More reliance on surface moisture for seed germination.
  •  Poorer seed-to-soil contact. Adequate and uniform contact helps seeds take in soil moisture quickly and uniformly. 
  •  Many aerial applicators have little or no experience planting cover crops in the fall. 

Put simply, planting cover crops by air can be riskier than from the ground — but aerial application also opens up possibilities that otherwise might be limited, or even impossible.

Another view

Aerial seeding of cover crops has a place, especially when conventional ground planting isn’t feasible, says John Nowatzki, agricultural machines specialist with the North Dakota State University extension service.

But seed generally does best when planted in the soil with ground planting, he says.

The possibility that seed dropped from a plane won’t germinate in dry soil shouldn’t be ignored or overlooked, he says.

“You’ve got to spend some money to buy the seeds. You want to make sure you get them to grow,” he says. “To me, I’d go to aerial if the weather didn’t cooperate for ground application.”

Farmers interested in cover crops also might want to consider new ground-based planting equipment that allows cover-crop seed to be planted into still-growing cash crops, Nowatzki says.

Costs and more

Klindt says he charges $7 or $8 per acre to plant cover crops from the air; that doesn’t include the cost of the seed itself.

The cost of application, which can vary by aerial applicator, reflects the volume of seed the farm plane carries into the air. When more seed is carried, the per-acre cost is typically lower.

Aerial application typically makes most sense financially when applicators handle relatively large fields. But aerial applicators, who see fall seeding of cover crops as a way to extend their season and increase their business, often are willing to seed small fields with cover crops to help farmers learn more, Klindt says.

He suggests that farmers interested in aerial seeding of cover crops visit an aerial applicator with whom they have a relationship. If the applicator doesn’t have the experience or equipment to do the job, he or she might be able to suggest or locate an applicator who will.

‘Nothing new’

Wahpeton farmer Doug Toussaint has never been one to stick blindly to the status quo.

“I’ve always been a farmer, I’ve been interested in trying something different,” he says. “I’m willing to experiment.”

His ongoing experiment with aerial cover-crop seeding began three years ago after he went to no-till meetings. No-till farming, which involves disturbing the soil as little as possible, fits well with cover crops and aerial application.

He’s used aerial applicators in the past to fertilize his cash crops, among other things. That’s gone well, which encouraged him to use planes to plant cover crops, too.

And planting cover crops from the air is “nothing new” in U.S. agriculture. This might be the first time you saw it, but it’s been out there for years, he says.

Toussaint, who raises corn, soybeans, winter wheat, rye, sunflowers, grass hay and alfalfa, has planted fall cover crops in a number of his cash crops.

On this September day, he leads visitors through fields of corn, soybeans and sunflowers in which cover crops were planted aerially. Some of the seeds were planted too recently to germinate; others, planted earlier, are thriving.

Toussaint points to the established cover-crop plants and describes the benefits they bring. Later, he digs into the soil, scoops a handful and explains how it’s helped by cover crops.

He shrugs when asked about the possibility that aerially planted cover crops might not germinate on top of dry soil.

“The important thing is, get it out there early and get it started,” Toussaint says. “Yeah, you can wait for a rain (before planting), but it can lie there on the dry ground (until there is rain. I’m more concerned with getting it started. We need the time.”

Some producers wonder if cover crops might suck moisture from cash crops already growing in a field. Not Toussaint.

“I’m not worried about it,” he says. “They’re (the cash crops) in the latter stage. That little seed (of the cover crop) takes very little moisture. And in wet falls, the cover crop is “taking excess moisture that would be wasted resources.”

Toussaint says most, if not all, farmers could benefit from aerial application of fall cover crops. His suggestion: “Just try it. Just do 20 acres. You don’t have to try the farm.”

That’s what Brice and Daniel Bellmore are doing with their corn field.

“Like I said, this is an experiment,” Brice says. “It’ll be interesting to see how things turn out.”

Three starting points

Want to learn more about cover crops? Here are some online sources of information:

  •  The Midwest Cover Crop Council:
  •  The Natural Resources Conservation Council:
  •  Webinar on aerial application of cover crops: Though geared to pilots, the webinar could be of value to others interested in cover crops, as well.