A day for crop and soil health; Mower SWCD partnering with farmer for field day on cover crops

Published 6:13 am Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mower County is helping the growing educational effort on the benefits of incorporating cover crops into agricultural practices.

On May 26, Mower Soil & Water Conservation District will join Cover Crop Champion farmers Tom Cotter and Tom Finnegan, both of Mower County, to host a Cover Crop & Soil Health Field Day that is free to the public, including a boxed lunch and bus transportation.

Cover cropping involves the planting of a second, unharvested crop in coordination with regular cash crops, such as corn and soybeans.

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Registered participants should arrive about 9 a.m. in the Riverland Community College’s east campus parking lot in Austin. All will board a school bus about 9:30 a.m. to travel to the farms of Tom Finnegan (Red Rock Township); Terry & Cindy Hamilton (Marshall Township); and Tom Cotter (Austin Township). Each site will have one hour to showcase its use of cover crops in the field as well as for helping with producing beef cattle (Cotter and Finnegan farms).

Some of the topics to be covered at the farms will include harvesting and grazing of cover crops; no-till and strip-till planting into terminated cover crops; no-till and strip-till planting into terminated winter wheat; and herbicide options for conventional corn and beans.

Boxed lunches will be provided on the bus while traveling from the Hamilton farm to the Cotter farm. Following the Cotter farm visit, the bus will depart about 1:45 p.m. to bring attendees back to Riverland.

Those interested should register by May 22 with Mower SWCD by calling 507-434-2603 or sending an email to tim.ruzek@mowerswcd.org.

Mower SWCD resource specialist Steve Lawler, a soil scientist, also will be a presenter during the Field Day.

The Field Day event is part of an $8,740 grant awarded earlier this year to Lawler and Mower SWCD from the National Wildlife Federation, which named Mower SWCD as a Cover Crop Champion for outreach. The grant also named Tom Cotter and Tom Finnegan, both of Mower County, as Cover Crop Champion farmers.

Cotter and Finnegan, who have kept a busy schedule the past few months with giving presentations on cover crops, incorporate cover crops into their farm operations, both located just outside of Austin.

Lawler has worked closely with Cotter and Finnegan since the Mower Soil Health Team formed in early 2016.

“They really are ideal farmers for this because they’re passionate about cover crops and what that practice can do to help a farm in numerous ways while also benefiting the environment and wildlife,” Lawler said.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program says cover crops offer economic and ecological benefits:

•Reducing fertilizer costs.

•Improving crop yields by enhancing soil health.

•Reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides.

•Preventing soil erosion.

•Conserving soil moisture.

•Protecting water quality.

•Helping to safeguard personal health.

Since 2013, NWF has provided support to 42 Cover Crop Champion teams in giving information and farming knowledge on cover crops to local farmers and crop advisors. The program runs mostly in the Upper Mississippi River Basin states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Champion farmers generally give presentations in the region on cover crops and soil health to farmers and others. Outreach champions are ag professionals employed by a farm-related organization who support the farmer champion.

Cotter, a fourth-generation farmer, raises corn, soybeans, peas, sweet corn and alfalfa as well as runs a cow/calf beef operation on his Austin Township farm. In 2016, Cotter and his father, Michael, were Mower SWCD’s Outstanding Conservationists of the Year and were certified through the state’s Ag Certainty water-quality program.

With cover crops, Cotter has increased his farm’s grain quality; reduced chemical and fertilizer inputs; increased water infiltration; and greatly reduced erosion.

“It’s not too late to do our part in saving our environment one acre at a time,” Cotter said. “We need to think about the changes we implement now to secure the land and wildlife for our future generations.”

To succeed in cover cropping, Cotter said networking with farmers is vital. “Cover cropping is a journey I’ve been on for many years,” he said. “I had felt alone until I joined the soil health teams and realized there are other like-minded farmers out there.”

Finnegan is one of those farmers Cotter connected with through cover-crop networking. A third-generation livestock producer in Red Rock Township, Finnegan is a full-time electrician who runs a cow/calf beef operation while also starting in recent years to grow corn and soybeans. In 2007, he and his father, George, were Mower SWCD’s Outstanding Conservationists of the Year.

Finnegan used to rent his land to crop farmers until he started noticing undesirable changes on the ground. Finnegan chose to start farming his land with a minimum-tillage approach and now covers all his farmed land with various cover crop species that help his beef enterprise and goals for conservation and wildlife, which is a high priority to him as an avid outdoorsman.

“In just a few years, we are seeing a significant change,” Finnegan said of his land near the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center along Dobbins Creek’s north branch. “Good things are coming for us in agricultural conservation, and cover crops will be a driving part.”

Those interested in the Cover Crop Champion program or having Mower County’s Cover Crop Champion team speak at an event, contact Mower SWCD at 507-434-2603 or go online to: www.mowerswcd.org/CoverCropChampion2017.html.