Johnny Hunter and son, John Howard Hunter III
Johnny Hunter and son, John Howard Hunter III, in a field planted to a grazing mix that includes cereal rye and oats.

Johnny Hunter: Cover crops offer wide-ranging benefits

Cover crops can boost profits the first year they are planted, says Johnny Hunter.

In 2013, Johnny Hunter decided to get serious about cover crops, committing 800 acres to a five-way mix of cereal rye, winter oats, nitro radish, crimson clover, and Austrian winter peas. 

The following year, the Essex, Mo., producer planted corn and soybeans into the mix. He was so pleased with the results that he continued expanding the use of cover crops, and now uses them on all his corn, cotton, soybean, and furrow-irrigated rice land.

“The immediate results I saw the first year were improved soil tilth and water infiltration,” Hunter says. “Both of those benefits improved my furrow irrigation system by soaking up the water I was paying for, as well as God-given rain. I also noticed a reduction in weed pressure.”

Cover crops can boost profits the first year they are planted, he says.  “They can improve your bottom line even more over the years as their soil-improving effects accumulate. They can suppress weeds like glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth, manage soil erosion, help build and improve soil fertility and health, and control diseases and insects.   

“A major benefit is stopping your topsoil from going into the ditch. You can reduce soil erosion in the winter with cover crops and no-till practices. And you can reduce soil erosion during the growing season with fewer waterings.” 

HAVE A GOAL

Growers select different cover crops for different goals. For example, cereal rye can help suppress glyphosate-resistant pigweed, radishes can improve soil infiltration, and legumes can increase soil nitrogen.

“Growers just starting with cover crops typically have a goal in mind,” Hunter says. “For example, they often tell me that when they’re irrigating, the water goes from one end of the field to the other and they get little water infiltration. They can get a half-inch rain and be back irrigating the very next day, which is commonplace in the Delta. 

“So, one of the first things we work on is getting some biomass on the soil surface and improving water infiltration by having lots of roots in the field. Having a living root in your soil for as many days as possible is what this program is about — regardless of the following cash crop. We’re big fans of annual ryegrass; the rooting depth is phenomenal, as is the cost/benefit ratio on annual ryegrass.”

INCLUDES NO-TILL

Hunter increases the benefits of his cover crops by combining them with a no-till system, which he also first implemented on those 800 acres five years ago. 

“My land is 90 percent furrow irrigated, so I do make water furrows,” he says.  “Aside from that, I’m completely no-till. I have eliminated 95 percent of my former tillage practices, including ripping, hipping, and landplaning. I basically plant a cover crop after harvest, later make water furrows, and plant a cash crop into the terminated cover crop the following spring. The point is, cover crops are flexible — growers can use them in any production system.” 

So, if you’re interested in trying cover crops, where do you start? Hunter says, “It’s like eating an elephant — one bite at a time.” 

In addition to farming, he owns a cover crop seed business, Delta Cover Crop, and consults for growers and conservation districts on the practice.  “When I work with another grower, we start with one field, whether it’s 40 acres or a half section. The idea is to make the grower comfortable with the practice, because to do it right, it’s more than just planting a cover crop in the fall —  you’re changing your production program to make cover crops work, including changing tillage patterns, fertilization patterns, seeding rates, and planter setup.

PLAN AHEAD

“I recommend that growers work with someone like their NRCS office, their Soil Water Conservation District, and local growers who already use cover crops,” Hunter says.

“The time to start building a plan is in the fall for the following year, because everything you do through the growing season will affect everything else. Otherwise, you might spray long residual chemicals in the spring that could impact the fall cover crop.

“You’ll actually start making adjustments to your cash crop program to improve your cover crop program. The better the cover crop program, the better the cash crop program — there’s a lot of synergy between the two.” 

Hunter urges growers to take a hard look at their operation and see if they are farming in a way that is sustainable for future generations. “In addition to benefiting your operation today, cover crops help improve soils instead of degrading them. You’re leaving the land better than when you found it.”

For more information on Delta Cover Crop’s seed species, go to http://www.deltacovercrop.com/.

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