By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Successful county cover crop program transitions to private sector leadership
Ag Tech Air_ANVIL.jpg
CITIZENS HAVE BECOME familiar with the low-flying yellow airplane used by Ag Tech Air to plant cover crop seeds in the fall. The plane has flown out of the Boscobel airport for the last five years in the Crawford County Aerial Cover Crop program.

PATCH GROVE - The successful aerial cover crop planting program, pioneered in Crawford County, is taking the next step in growth by transitioning from public to private sector management. Black Sand Granary of Patch Grove (Grant County) will be the private sector company that will now offer the aerial cover crop seeding service.

Black Sand Granary is an agronomy services provider specializing in integrating the goals of good land stewardship and food production with a focus on profitability and sustainability. The company is owned by Adam and Kellie Kramer. It is ideally poised to work with producers, primarily in Grant and Crawford counties, and take the aerial seeding program to the next level. 

Producers interested in participation for Fall 2019 planting should contact Black Sand Granary sooner rather than later. Black Sand Granay can be reached at 608-412-5669, or by e-mail at admin@blacksandgranary.com.

Kramer’s approach

Adam Kramer was raised in southwest Iowa on a cow/calf farm, where the family ran beef cattle on pasture. Kramer attended Iowa State University at Ames, where he studied agriculture. He became familiar with the Driftless Region when he moved to his grandfather’s farm near Monona, Iowa.

“I always knew I wanted to attend college, and my education was really just a continuation of my whole life,” Kramer said. “I have always been interested in ways to promote both on-farm profitability and sustainability.”

Adam and Kellie married, and launched a soil testing and data management business in the Council Bluffs area in southwest Iowa, and raised their family. However, the Kramers always knew that they wanted to get back to the Driftless Area. 

In 2014, the couple had the opportunity to move to Grant County, and farm the land owned by Adam’s grandfather. In addition to farming the 160-acre farm, Kramer established Black Sand Granary to continue his work in soil testing and data management.

“Maximum production is central to my business, and our customers have won National Corn Grower’s Association awards in recent years,” Kramer noted. “Most farmers are doing a good job taking care of their land, but developments in technology mean that it is possible for producers to refine their decision-making and management decisions, and ensure that they are seeing the best return on investment in their farm operations.”

Kramer said that sometimes what that means is taking less productive acres out of production, and focusing on maximizing production on the better acres on the farm.

Kramer has made these kinds of changes on his home farm, using a deep data set developed about the different soils. Based on soil health research, Kramer decided to take less productive acres near the tree line is his fields and plant them into a swath of perennial vegetation. He ramped up production on his better acres with a scientific approach to inputs based on his research.

“Our on-farm research can show producers which acres are their most productive, what is needed to make those acres even more productive, and on which acres a producer could consider installation of conservation practices,” Kramer said. “What we try to do is encourage producers to put their resources into the better ground.”

Kramer explained that, especially in the current economic downturn in the farm economy, the best thing a producer can do to increase profitability is to collect as much information about their farm as possible. This, he says, will allow them to make the data-driven decisions that will maximize their returns.

“In my work, I help producers understand how to harness the power of the environment and work with it versus against it,” Kramer explained. “Producers who start to think in this way will go through a management shift, form a better plan, and start taking the long view.”

Kramer cited soil erosion and lack of water infiltration as the two biggest conservation issues facing farmers today. Cover crops, he says, are part of the solution to both of these problems.

“When you maintain a continuous cover on your land, and increase the above- and below-ground biomass in your fields, then you’re going to see increased microbiological activity and improved soil structure,” Kramer said. “This in turn, combined with no-till or reduced-tillage planting, will lead to reduced erosion and greater water infiltration.”

By holding more water in the soil, and preventing soil erosion, producers will not only improve their farm operation, but also play a critical role in protecting ground and surface water quality, and reducing the volume of runoff that can contribute to flooding problems.

Kramer pointed out that 41 percent of the nation’s land drains into the Mississippi River. This, according to Kramer, means that the Drifless Area is “ground zero” for helping to prevent runoff of nutrients that ultimately impact water quality all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Kramer emphasized that the management decisions of farmers in the Driftless Area have a big impact on what happens in the Gulf of Mexico. He said the two most important nutrients to keep out of the water are phosphorous and nitrate.

“Using cover crops, especially putting small grains into your rotation, means that your soils will be enhanced,” Kramer said. “It is estimated that for every ton of biomass on the surface of a field planted in cover crops, there is double that amount of biomass generated below the surface.”

The aerial cover crop service provided by Black Sand Granary will include field scouting and research, identifying the best seed mix to meet the farmer’s goals and ideal application date, and then follow up. 

In past years, the Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Program, run by Crawford County, has provided two choices of seed mixes – one that is a ‘winter kill’ option, which is a mix of spring barley, oats and forage radishes; and a second that is a mix which includes a seed that will grow strongly in the fall combined with species that will come back in the spring.

Aerial seeding program

The vibrant Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Program was started as a collaboration between the Crawford County Land Conservation Department and the Crawford Count USDA-NRCS office. County conservationist David Troester led the initiative, and worked closely with USDA-NRCS District Conservationist Karyl Fritsche. Fritsche helped connect producers with NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funding for soil health. EQIP funds, if secured, can help producers defray some of the cost of cover crop installation on approved acres.

The benefits of the aerial seeding program are multiple. Aerial seeding allows producers to get their acres planted in  the optimal time frame to allow for fall emergence, even when existing crops have not yet been harvested or when field conditions are prohibitive to timely planting. By putting together multiple producers who might not be able to interest an aerial seeding provider in planting their acres, it allows an area to reach a critical threshold to secure the services. And by combining their seed purchases across the group, it helps to drive down the per-acre cost of installation.

Program history

Troester and Fritsche began their collaboration on the program in 2013, with the first step being to enlist producers in applying for EQIP funding. The funding helped to get farmers going with incorporating a new management practice in their farm operations. The conservationist’s goal was to establish long-term adoption. The benefits, according to Fritsche, are reduced soil erosion and increased soil health.

“Our target for year one was 1,500 acres, and Dave and I targeted the September 2014 EQIP sign up to get producers connected with the funding,” Fritsche remembered. “We exceeded expectations that first year with 1,774 acres enrolled and $457,000 in funding awarded as three-year contracts.”

According to Fritsche, Troester’s contributions were enormous – working with Crawford County corporate counsel to generate producer contracts, and overseeing the process of bidding the contract out with aerial seeding providers. 

Troester was also instrumental in securing county board approval to establish a rollover account for the funding, with up front payment being made from the county’s general fund and then reimbursement coming in the form of individual producer payments from their EQIP funding.

“Aerial application had never been done in our area in southwest Wisconsin with a fixed wing plane before,” Fritsche said. “Our contours, field size, and field location are challenging and our producers had little exposure to aerial application of any kind.”

According to Fritsche, she was able to convince eight producers to give it a try that first year. Troester was able to secure the services of Ag Tech Air, the company that has provided the aerial seeding service for the last five years.

“The assistance of Ag Tech Air has been essential to the success of the project,” Fritsche said. “They were as dedicated as we were to the success of the project, went through the learning curve with us, and refined the process to its current high functioning level.”

Overall the project has resulted in:

• $1,051,878 dollars of federal funding being implemented on Crawford County Lands, with just a little over $2 million obligated to the total project 

• 7,500 acres of cover crops being seeded into standing crops

• 15,750 tons of soil loss reduced from entering our waterways, the equivalent of 800 semi loads of topsoil

• $80,000 dollars set aside in a rollover account specific to additional conservation needs in the county

• $50,000 in contracts over multiple years to a private consultant.

Flying out of the Boscobel airport, and once out of the Viroqua airport, the program has seen steady growth in acres:

• 2014: 1,430 acres in Crawford; 65 acres in Grant; and 278 acres in Vernon; for a total of 1,773 acres

• 2015: 1,976 acres in Crawford; 60 acres in Grant; for a total of 2,036 acres

• 2016: 3,223 acres in Crawford

• 2017: 2,469 acres in Crawford; 393 acres in Vernon; for a total of 2,862 acres

• 2018: 3,670 acres in Crawford; 213 acres in Vernon; for a total of 3,883 acres.

According to Adam Kramer of Black Sand Granary, his company has already secured contracts which will double the number of acres planted under the program in 2019 to between 8,000 to 10,000 acres.

Funding and sign up

The USDA-NRCS District Conservationists in Crawford, Vernon and Grant counties encourage producers interested in securing EQIP soil-health funding for cover crop installation to apply by the May 17, 2019 deadline.

EQIP funding for soil health, approved in a competitive statewide process, may or may not be available for use in the fall of 2019, but would potentially allow producers to plan for fall of 2020 planting.

 • Crawford County: Karyl Fritsche, 608-326-7179, ext. 109

• Vernon County: Sam Skemp, 608-637-2183, ext. 219.

• Grant County: Joe Schmelz, 608-723-6377, ext. 130.

The Tainter Creek Producer-Led Watershed Council, a watershed in southwest Vernon and northwest Crawford counties, also has some cover crop funding for 2019 provided by a grant from DATCP. The funding is available to producers in that watershed. To learn more about the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, contact Berent Froiland at 608-391-0570 or froilandb@gmail.com.
“Our on-farm research can show producers which acres are their most productive, what is needed to make those acres even more productive, and on which acres a producer could consider installation of conservation practices,” Kramer said. “What we try to do is encourage producers to put their resources into the better ground.”
Adam Kramer