Early Adopter Advocates for Cover Crop | Sam Spellman

Article by  West Central

Cover crops can be a daunting undertaking, but Sam Spellman, a producer near Woodward, is leading by example with his new fall crops of winter rye, radishes and clover. 

Spellman, who also serves a county soil and water commissioner, is part of a pilot-program in Dallas County. “We planted cover crops in a visible place so other farmers could see the process,” he said. With the roll-out of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the media and at meetings, Spellman says there is willingness to see what works and what doesn’t. 

“I have been pleasantly surprised by the response from my fellow growers,” he said. “They’re asking good, intelligent questions and that is encouraging to me as a farmer and a commissioner." 

Spellman is an advocate for showcasing voluntary adoption of nutrient management programs. “Trying out these cover crops as an early adopter, I need to be honest and transparent about what works and what doesn’t work as our industry works to promote cover crop management as one piece of an overall voluntary program to avoid additional federal regulations,” he said. 

 The fall of 2012 was Spellman’s first year for utilizing cover crops in his annual corn/soybean rotation. In his corn-to-bean year, he planted clover and radishes in the fall to carry nitrogen and loosen soil. 

His first planting experience, post cover crop, was positive. “The precision planting monitor’s downforce rates showed that the ground was mellower when I planted into it,” explained Spellman. “When I applied spring anhydrous, I was already noticing more earthworms.” 

While the short-term returns were evident, Spellman is focused on the long-term goal; reducing erosion and improving soil health. “We are a mile from Beaver Creek and while we already manage through water ways, an intricate tiling system and grid sampling for accurate application rates, there is always more you can try.” 

Spellman is passionate about the data and research behind cover crop management citing studies from Ohio and Indiana that have been national leaders in cover crop adoption. As a 12 year member of the On-Farm Network, Spellman recognizes that growers can be overwhelmed by the data available. He encourages producers to start small. 

“For guys looking to try cover crops for the first time, the very first thing I recommend to them is a stop in their county NRCS office,” Spellman advised. NRCS offers cost-share opportunities for cover crop seed and planting. “We’re all trying to manage input costs as we’ve seen a shift in grain prices, and getting some help from the NRCS program can make a huge difference,” Spellman said. 

Spellman’s second piece of advice: start relatively small. “Try it on 40 or 80 acres. There is a different style of management. You have to decide in fall how and when to plant cover crops,” said Spellman who no-till drilled the cover crops after the 2012 harvest and seeded by aerial application in late August 2013 for his second crop. 

Spellman is already thinking about his plan for cover crop management for next year. “I know what worked and what didn’t work, and now I’m interested in getting some data on soil health and erosion reduction to prove that what I’ve been doing really is working.” 

Note: Sam Spellman received a 2013 Iowa Farm and Environmental Leader award from the NRCS/IDALS. He serves on the West Central Board of Directors.