FAIRMONT - Typically when you think of planting a field, the image of a tractor dragging across freshly turned soil comes to mind as the chill of winter gives way to the warming rays of spring.
But Darwin Roberts is doing things a little different this fall.
Roberts recently hired an airplane to seed over a standing soybean field, planting what is known as a cover crop.
Steve Holmseth with Fairmont Aerial Ag pilots his plane over Darwin Roberts’ fields, planting a cover crop over soybeans as the sun comes up on Martin County.
Cover crops are used extensively in the block of states to our south, according to Linda Meschke, founder of Rural Advantage, but it is taking a bit longer for the practice to catch on in this region of Minnesota.
In slightly warmer states, farmers can seed the cover crop after the main crop has been harvested, but our shorter growing season and earlier frost makes seeding a bit more challenging.
With the pressure growing on farmers to find ever more conservation practices to implement on their farms, doing things a little different than usual could reap high rewards.
Jill Sackett, extension educator with the University of Minnesota, said those trying cover crops here have typically been growing canning crops, which are harvested earlier in the year, or they are planting late in the season when cash crops are out.
Planting the crops late in the season means the seeds are less likely to take, and the benefits of the plants are reduced if they do.
That is where the airplane comes in.
Sackett said Roberts is the only farmer she knows locally using this method.
Flying low over the 64 acres of beans on Robert's field, the plane drops the seed before circling back to do another run.
Sackett said there is some debate about when the best time to broadcast the seed is - the cover crop needs to be established before the cash crop is harvested, but the cash crop can't be so lush and green that its leaves trap the seeds.
A quick check of Roberts' field shows the seed has made it to soil.
To give the plants a better chance of germinating, Roberts chose a cocktail of seeds, including rye, lentils and red clover.
Sackett said the key is to choose small seeds with the best soil-to-seed contact.
By the time the soybeans are ready for harvest, the cover crop plants will be a couple inches high and hardy enough to survive being driven over during the harvest.
"The crops remaining provide protection all the way through the fall and into the spring," Meschke said. "They are allowed to grow until he is ready to plant again in the spring, in April or May."
Then the cover crops are burned out with herbicide and the field is re-planted. Some farmers use the cover crop as feed for livestock, either grazing their animals into the spring or baling the crop.
The cover crop provides several different benefits.
"It is a really good water quality practice," Meschke said, noting it reduces erosion from fields into existing waterways while soaking nitrogen up into the leaves of the cover crop.
"The plants keep the nitrogen from leaching out of the soil, so it is available when the next year's crop is planted," Meschke said. "It helps in a lot of different ways."
Sackett said the University of Minnesota has been assisting farmers in southeastern Minnesota via helicopter seeding.
She said some people have strongly held convictions on whether helicopter or airplanes are the best way to go for aerial seeding, but the only difference she sees is if the pilot needs to fly to an airport to reload the seed.
Roberts hired Fairmont Aerial Ag. Steve Holmseth, who piloted the plane, said outfitting his plane for seeding the cover crop was only a matter of switching out the hopper.
"It is just another service we supply," he said.
Rural Advantage has been spreading the word about cover crops for the past three to four years, Meschke said, who is beginning to see more local interest.
"We are glad Darwin is doing this," she said. "People can come out and see what it is like."