JUNEAU — In 1982, after becoming tired of closing ditches in fields before going through with a combine, Steve Groff decided to experiment with no-till. Over the next few years, he began dabbling with cover crops and in 1995 started collecting research from them in hopes to answer the age-old question, “Do cover crops pay?”

He found that he harvested 28 more bushels of corn from fields where cover crops had been planted four years prior.

“I haven’t asked that question since,” Groff said. “I saw yes, they do pay. And now I’m trying to maximize it.”

Groff was the keynote speaker at the recent Dodge County Soil Health Expo, traveling to Wisconsin from Holtwood, Pa., to share his experiences with cover crops with those in attendance, many of which were members of the farmer-led Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water group.

Every farmer had their own reason for attending the expo; some have seen the momentum with cover crops and are considering giving them a try, some have already experimented while others might have learned about cover crops for the first time that day. Whatever the reason, Groff hoped they left the expo feeling inspired, ready to ask themselves what they can do on their own farms to make a difference.

“Agriculture is changing. And it will continue to change. It always has changed,” he said. “But there are opportunities. And I’m choosing to look for those opportunities.”

Exploring soil health and how to make cover crops work for you is just one opportunity — one that could have positive implications on a farm. The concept seems simple enough, however, if you want to be successful with it, you have to understand the complexity, Groff said.

“It’s a tool based on management,” he added. “You have to embrace it if you’re going to make it work.”

Soil health is extremely difficult to build, hard to maintain and easy to destroy. It isn’t something you can buy from the store either; it is something that needs to be made and managed by the farmer, with Groff encouraging farmers in attendance to look at themselves as “soil health managers,” striving to understand the soils on their operations and how those soils were meant to function.

For those just starting out, or wanting more information, he strongly suggested they read “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health” by Jon Sitka. From there, he recommended farmers connect with a mentor — someone who is already doing what they want to accomplish. While there is lots of information online, and a farmer could be successful by doing it on their own, chances greatly improve for success if they connect with others who want to accomplish the same goals.

Setting those goals is also important, Groff stressed.

“If you don’t have a goal, you’ll never accomplish anything,” he said.

On his farm, Groff has a goal of having his soil covered with living roots year-round, and while he doesn’t hit that goal every year, he feels like he does the best he can. And sometimes that’s all a farmer can do.

Other goals on his farm include increasing diversity, lowering the amounts of pesticides and fertilizers used, committing to no commodity crops and increasing nutrient density. By hashing out what he called a “100-year plan,” Groff has been able to start to tackle many of these goals on his operation.

He also presented several strategies for making cover crops work on an operation. First and foremost, have a plan in place so crops can be planted at the ideal time. In order to do this, Groff suggested treating your cover crops like your cash crops, giving them the appropriate amount of time and resources needed to be successful.

Find the right species of cover crop for your soils and use them to your advantage. If you have livestock, it might be a worthwhile consideration to use cover crops as forage. There may even be opportunities in your area for partnerships with breweries if your cover crops of choice are ryes or barleys.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to adopting soil health practices, like cover crops, is the mindset. Many farmers may think they don’t know enough, that they won’t be able to get proper crop insurance, feel pressure from other farmers, rent their land, are discouraged by crop consultants and input suppliers and worry the bank won’t approve financing. Those farmers need to change their mindset, Groff argued.

“This is the secret,” he said. “Treat your cover crops like your cash crops.”

Groff asked those in attendance to consider his 10 percent cover crop challenge, which encourages farmers to increase their cover crop acreage by 10 percent through determining their objectives, defining their planting window, checking with their local U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service office, adjusting their herbicide program to accommodate cover crops, ensuring proper setup of their planter, setting up their management and termination plans, and continuing to learn about best cover cropping practices.

For farmers that aren’t ready to commit to cover crops, Groff modified his 10 percent challenge for them.

“Ask yourself, what can you do on your farm that’s 10 percent more than you’re already doing?” he said.

For more information on Groff and his cover crop consulting services, visit www.stevegroff.com. Groff also maintains Cover Crop Innovators, an online subscription-based group that shares expert advice, techniques and advanced cover crop concepts to help improve soil health and bottom line results, at www.cover cropinnovators.com.