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Nationwide forums promote cover crops

Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Eastern Washington farmers are working to find the right mix of cover crops to improve their soil health. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service held forums around the nation to coincide with a national conference.

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — Finding the right mix of cover crops remains a major hurdle for Eastern Washington farmers, they said at a forum Tuesday promoting the practice.

Cover crops are grown and then incorporated into the soil to improve it and retain moisture.

“Our challenge is integrating (cover crops) into our annual cropping systems and even our no-till fallow situations, trying to figure out just what that mix looks like so it doesn’t drain moisture out of the ground and be a detriment to the next crop,” Spokane Conservation District production agriculture manager Ty Meyer said.

The Airway Heights meetings was one of 225 the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service hosted around the nation in conjunction with a national conference on cover crops and soil health in Omaha, Neb.

Advocacy will be a big step in increasing support for cover crops, said Howard Buffett, a farmer and chairman of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which sponsored the conference. Buffett’s comments were broadcast from the meeting.

Buffett is the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

“Our biggest challenge is the mindset of many farmers,” Buffett said. “It’s hard to change behavior. We have to raise the profile of farmers who are having success, of those individuals who understand the processes....”

Richard Ott, who farms north of Spokane, said he has experimented with cover crops. He attended the local forum to share his successes and failures with other farmers.

“It’s still kind of in the trial-and-error stage, really dealing a lot with our growing season and weather patterns,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to try and use a Midwest-type system.”

Ott’s long-term objective is better soil health.

“I think as we develop (cover crops) more in the area, more people will see the benefits,” he said.

Genesee, Idaho, farmer Russ Zenner recently tried cover crops for the first time. Raising cover crops in the middle of harvest caused a conflict with his workload, and he said he was disappointed in the value he received grazing cattle on the crop.

But Zenner said his soil looks like it will benefit from the cover crop. He plans to try again. North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown’s story of improved soil health, quality and increased yields while cutting back on chemical use appealed to Zenner.

“It’s just going to take more growers trying it,” he said. “We don’t have experience with timing of seeding, how to incorporate it into our cropping system, whether or not livestock are going to be a very essential part of this.”

Meyer said he hopes to bring more experts to the region to assess Eastern Washington soils and offer advice.


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