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ELKTON — A decade ago or so, Terry and Cindy Hamilton had barely heard of cover crops.
They certainly weren't using them on their 1,200-acre corn and soybean farm about 2 miles south of Elkton. Terry said he did not know anything about cover crops, but had fielded a request from farmers near Harmony to seed cover crops from the air through Midwest Ag-Air, LLC, a company that performs agricultural services via plane. Within a few short years, the Hamiltons had dozens of requests from farmers around the region asking them to seed cover crops using the same planes they use to spread fertilizers and do spraying. ALSO READ: Judge sends Daley Farm request back to Board of Adjustment "We'd never heard of it, not as an applicator," Terry Hamilton said. "It was just sort of an odd thing, but we did it. We have rice seeding experience in the South and out in California, so we did it like we do rice seeding."
That initial run of cover crop jobs led Terry to wonder about the best way to apply the seeds via the air, considering different wind conditions, the amount of seed per acre, the types of seed and more. After all, when a few customers called saying they were unhappy with the job he'd done, he needed to figure it out for himself. That led to years of experimentation on his own crops, Terry said. And, wanting to share his findings, he worked with the University of Minnesota and Farm Service Agency to better understand how cover crops worked. For those years of work, the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District honored the Hamiltons as the agency's Conservationists of the Year for 2020. "I don't feel there's an award that should be given out because I haven't figured anything out yet," Terry said. "I understand they appreciate I tried so hard for them (to study cover crops). It wasn't so much for them, it was for myself as well. I had to figure out what was wrong."
Two visitors check out the fields at Hamilton Farm south of Elkton during a Mower County Soil & Water Conservation District soil health field day in this May 26, 2017, photo. (Contributed photo/Mower County Soil & Water Conservation District)
Cover crops "isn't a new science at all. We knew this long, long ago," Terry said. American farmers in the 1930s and '40s didn't have the herbicides to manage grasses and weeds, he said. Back then, farmers planted their cover crops during their last pass of the cultivators, but typically the corn plants weren't high or thick enough so the cover crops grew too thick in the fields. Part of the solution today is to make sure the corn is tall enough. Another solution is to use a multi-species mix of cover crops, which helps meet seed-count standards many cover crop programs require and adds a variety of amino acids to the soil -- all part of building soil health. Cindy, who does most of the business side of the Hamiltons aviation business, said she has a list of questions for customers to determine what they are trying to achieve with their cover crops, because one farm's cover crop solution likely is different from the solution their neighbors need.
Cover crops grow between rows of soybeans at Hamilton Farm south of Elkton in this Oct. 19, 2017, photo. (Contributed photo/Mower County Soil & Water Conservation District)
"What one person's goal might be to prevent soil erosion isn't necessarily this other guy's goal because he wants to graze his cattle in there after the spring," Cindy said. "He wants something tall and lush with feed value." Steve Lawler, Mower County SWCD soil scientist, said, "They truly care about the land and work very hard to become as educated as possible about soil health and the practices that support it." Lawler has worked extensively with the Hamilton family, who have allowed him and other soil scientists to set up research plots on their Marshall Township farm as part of a larger soil-health study by Mower SWCD and the University of Minnesota. Terry said the first step farmers need to take is to stop "moving iron through the dirt," which means going no-till or strip-till on their fields. Each time you run a cultivator across the land, the dirt underneath is getting hard-packed, which cuts off the root and worm channels that help with infiltration in the field. That means less runoff and healthier soil. "This ground holds so much water, you can't dry it out (unless you overwork the dirt)," he said. All the testing on his own land has been a boon to his own soil's health, Terry said. The increased organic matter means if there's a dry period in a summer, his crops aren't wilting, and he's not losing yield at harvest. "The texture of the soil has changed," he said, adding that if he digs up a spot in this field, the dark dirt has the consistency of "cottage cheese." Convincing farmers to change their ways, he said, and adopt cover crop practices means showing them how cover crops, which come with a bigger investment on the front end, bring a better bottom line at the end of the year. But if you can convince them to stop tilling, then the money they save by not running their tractors more often can be spent seeding cover crops. "You don't have the fuel, the manpower, the wear-and-tear on the machinery," he said. "You save $50 an acre, and if you spend $20-$25 and still get the same yield, you've come out ahead." The Hamiltons said while they believe cover crops can help farmers achieve better soil and better yields, they are happy to continue doing experiments in their fields to keep supplying data that does the talking for them. "What we want to do is what's right for Minnesota," Terry said. "I made a believer out of myself, and I'm skeptical."
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