NRCS's ACT NOW Cover Crop Initiative, the NE CO Producer, and the Right Mix

May 24, 2023

In communities across rural Colorado, neighbors often look out for neighbors – many will offer to give you a hand when you need it or a call when the cows are out. In the Ham’s case, they got a phone call in the middle of October to let them know that one of their pivots was irrigating a field of otherwise dried down and mature corn. With the combine and grain cart parked in the corner of the field, ready for harvest, one can see how the pivot still running across the field was a strange sight in northeastern Colorado. 

But, unbeknownst to the concerned neighbor at the time, was that the Hams were actually irrigating a three species cover crop mix. The inter-seeding of the cover crop mix in the Ham’s standing corn is part of a Cover Crop Initiative that falls under the broader scope of the Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS) ACT NOW Initiative. This particular initiative allows producers the opportunity to apply for applicable EQIP funding, and those who have fully established eligibility records with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) have the potential to know if their project will be funded before leaving the USDA service center. Through Colorado ACT NOW, producers can experience a targeted, rapid, streamlined application and contract approval process.

As for the Hams, the choice to work with the ACT NOW Cover Crop Initiative through NRCS was an easy decision built on specific targeted goals for their operation. When talking about their goals, brothers Braden and Cameron Ham share, “For us, I’d say that’s supplemental feed for livestock, wind erosion protection, and improving our organic matter.” As the fourth generation to be working in the family business – which includes both a feedlot and farming operation in the northeast part of Colorado in Philips and Sedgwick counties – the Hams are open to trying new practices if it will help them achieve their goals. “Depending on your goal, you can find a way to make it work,” shared Ham.

While working with the NRCS, the Ham operation has done just that. In addition to broadcasting the cover crop mix – which consisted of rye, radishes, and turnips – with an air seeder on one of their grain corn fields, they also drilled the mixture into a silage corn field.  “On our behalf, some of these projects wouldn’t work on every one of our fields, but the thing is you have to manage it,” says Ham. “We pay attention to what's going on and if we need to make adjustments, we will.”

For the Hams the importance of the supplemental feed offered by the cover crops was a key motivator for giving the three species mixture a try, particularly in face of changing agricultural landscapes in their area. Notably there has been an increase in heifer grow yards for dairies, and as such there has been a shift in crops grown in the area. Acres that used to be planted in corn, and in the past were possible options for grazing their cattle, have now shifted to hay crops such as triticale and alfalfa. Once viable grazing options have become increasingly rare and harder for the family operation to access.

Integrating cover crops however, has allowed the Hams to adapt and mitigate the impact this has on their livelihood. “As for the management of our operation, a big takeaway for us is that we could double stock the field with the cover crops on it,” says Ham. “The cattle need a place to go because there are less acres out there to graze. Plus it also provides a dietary diversity in what they are eating, it’s not just corn stalks. When the rye gets really lush, the cattle grazing can gain over two pounds a day. So if they’re out there for 30 days, they can be 60 pounds heavier and that’s significant.” Another perk to cattle grazing the cover crop fields is that native rangelands in the area also get the opportunity for a much-needed rest.

In addition to supplemental feed, “The Hams were concerned with the potential for wind erosion and building organic matter on some of their fragile soils. The ACT NOW EQIP fit right into what their concerns were,” shares Daniel Palic, NRCS Resource Team Lead for the Julesburg and Holyoke field offices. In an area of the state where soil organic matter usually ranges from 1-1.5 and where precious topsoil can literally be gone with the wind, cover crops can offer seasonal protection and an avenue for soil health improvement. “Organic matter is something that we don’t have without stuff like this,” says Ham. “And we’ve got to take advantage of this cover – to cover the ground for wind erosion.”

Overall, one of the main aims of the ACT NOW Cover Crop Initiative is to help improve soil health and the Hams are eager to see what progress is made during their involvement in the program. “They are always thinking of ways to improve and are extremely aware of their operations. They never hesitate to ask questions or get more clarification,” shares Palic. “It is always rewarding to see practices implemented that are providing benefit to the landowners.”

In addition to the Cover Crop Initiative and projects such as these, several other initiatives fall under the umbrella of Colorado ACT NOW such as the High Tunnel Initiative, Conservation Planning Activity, Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, and Forestry Wildfire Reduction and Resilience.

For more information on any of these opportunities, contact your local NRCS office.

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