About 160 farmers and producers from across the Midwest, and as far away as Wisconsin, gathered at Northwest Missouri State University last week for a cover crops workshop hosted by the school's Department of Agricultural Sciences.
The day-long seminar focused on educating local commercial growers and gardeners about the value of adding cover crops to traditional production systems. While on campus, the producers heard from other farmers, agriculture faculty and staff members from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The group also toured several cover crop demonstration plots.
According to Northwest Associate Professor Jamie Patton, the use of cover crops by farmers has increased between 400 and 500 percent in recent years as producers seek to raise levels of organic matter, porosity and nutrients in the soil. Such crops also serve to control erosion and have other positive environmental effects.
"Often times we're not taught this kind of information in college, the whole idea of the soil being an ecosystem," Patton said. "We're so used to looking at treating symptoms. For example, we need nitrogen, so we apply nitrogen. We never go back and actually think about why that soil was deficient in nitrogen, or why those plants are deficient in nitrogen.
"So this was a way to try to get producers to look at soil not just as a geologic material but as a living being, and how we can treat that living being better so that she can better serve us in food production."
Ray Archuleta, an NRCS conservation agronomist who has received national recognition for his work with cover crops, delivered the workshop’s keynote address. Other sessions covered such topics as cover crop applications in row crop production and gardening.
Ajay Nair, an assistant professor of sustainable vegetable production at Iowa State University, offered advice to vegetable growers about integrating cover crops into their fields and how to manage them. Nair said his goal was to help producers understand what happens underneath the soil and the impact cover crops have on soil biology.
"The underlying principle for any sustainable farm is to have a soil that is not producing crops only for year one, year two or year three, but a system that will sustain the growth of the microbes and the growth of the crop," Nair said.
NRCS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provided the grant that made the workshop possible.
"We were blessed to have a Missouri NRCS grant, which allowed us to bring in all of these producers," Patton said. "We will continue to seek funding to continue these workshops because what we’re hearing is that producers are really interested in learning more, not just about cover crops but agricultural issues in general."
Northwest students and faculty have grown various types of cover crops over the last three years. Last fall, in a relatively small plot on the north side of Valk Center, the agriculture department planted tillage radishes in order to study the impact of root growth on highly compacted soil.
Page 2 of 2 - In addition, the department has grown cereal grains, legumes and winter canola at the Mozingo Outdoor Education Recreation Area east of Maryville in an attempt to control erosion, improve soil fertility and provide wildlife habitat.