This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Groff, a farmer and cover crop pioneer who has also worked with the University of Maryland on extensive cover crop research. Steve founded Cover Crop Coaching in 2016 and has spoken to audiences across North America, Europe, Australia, Japan, and many other parts of the world on the use of cover crops across the full range of agricultural applications.
In this episode, we talk about important management tools to incorporate with cover crops, the causes of erosion in a soil system, and how farmers can supply consumer demand for nutritional value. We also discuss farm economics, the books Steve read that started him in cover cropping and a step by step guide for growers who want to start developing healthy soil.
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Resources recommended by Steve
Episode 7 - Steve Groff - Highlights
3:00 - What are some of the memorable moments that have lead Steve to where he is today?
- Steve started no till in the early 80’s - Solely to stop soil erosion
- A key moment for Steve was 3 years into doing no till - He noticed his soil was beginning to “mellow out”
- Today we can transfer to no till much faster than ever before
- In 1995 Steve started researching cover crops - he noticed after a drought year that he had 28 bushels more of corn preceding the previous 3 years
- Steve is all-in on cover crops!
8:20 - Erosion is a symptom of a bigger problem
- Healthier soil isn’t going to blow or wash away
- We don’t have a runoff problem, we have a water infiltration problem
- Steve is encouraged by seeing mainstream agriculture start to clue in
10:00 - Can we completely resolve erosion with the use of cover crops?
- We can greatly reduce it
- Not just cover crops - there are many other practices however they are a key component. Cover crops are a tool - you need to manage them properly
- Having a living root in the soil as long as possible is important
- Having diversity of species is important - we can enhance this with cover crops!
- Less/zero soil disturbance is important
12:30 - What are some of the other important tools farmers should incorporate?
- Fertility management - (Ex: Avoid anhydrous ammonia, high salt fertilizers)
- Once you get your soil functioning, you can start unlocking things that were locked before, such as allowing more access to certain minerals
- Steve isn’t saying everyone needs to be no till - but does advocate it. Tillage is a destructive event
15:10 - How important is it to have a diversity of cover crops?
- There is a time and a place for single species cover crops
- Steve always plants mixed species
- You have to play around and see what works on your farm!
- How many species do you need? Going beyond 6-8; advantages start to level off.
- Mixed species doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive
- Cover crop mixes can be thought of as a “one plus one equals three” solution
20:30 - What is something that Steve has puzzled over?
- The link to human health from how we grow plants and nutrient density
- Steve noticed that the USDA doesn’t say how they establish the averages for nutritional value
- Steve is looking into creating branding for nutritional basis
26:00 - Does Steve believe it is possible that farmers will be compensated for growing quality
- Generally, Steve thinks yes.
- Majority of plant genetics are made for yield - so it may take awhile to get right
- There are some plant breeders that are now breeding for quality over yield
30:50 - Buyers care about flavor and aroma - These are the same markers of nutrient density
- Flavor and aroma is what makes repeat customers
- These can also be traced back to plant genetics and breeding - it’s important to build from the ground up
- Big similarities between microbiome of our gut and the microbiome of soil
35:50 - What is something that has surprised Steve in his work?
- The importance of soil health - What tools like cover crops and no tillage are capable of
- Once you get the system working, you don’t need as much input!
- Steve expects to continue being surprised as he tries to discover more
38:00 - What does Steve believe to be true about agriculture that many others do not?
- Reducing input is not going to lead to “mining out” the soil
- That the use of insecticides and fungicides can be reduced
- “Would you take chemo to prevent cancer?”
41:40 - What does Steve believe to be the biggest opportunity in agriculture today?
- Cycles always come and go
- Regenerative agriculture and growing with reduced input
- Steve believes there is a bright future ahead
45:00 - What is a book or resource that Steve would recommend?
46:50 - What ideas or technology is Steve excited about for the future of agriculture?
- Advancement on cover crop equipment
50:10 - Is Steve having fun?
- Steve finds it fulfilling to help farmers and being a steward of God’s earth
51:10 - What would Steve recommend to a farmer starting down this path today?
- Ask: What do you want to accomplish? Good to prioritise when you’re new
- Time of year will determine species to plant
- Only apply a new practice to the amount of plants you can afford to lose
- Learn all you can - Talk to and follow those who are achieving what you want to do
54:40 - What does Steve wish John had asked?
- How the economics work out - “How can I do this, and flourish?”
56:20 - What has been the economic impact of cover crops on Steve’s operations?
- Looking at 5 years - Fertilizer went down 50%, and chemicals went down 37%
58:20 - What was the cost of these results?
- Growing your own cover crops cuts down on cost
- 60-80 lbs of nitrogen instead of 175-200 lbs
- Average corn yield is between 185-200
- For pumpkins: Can cut nitrogen rate to 45-50 lbs
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