The three-year cover crop experiment David Loe plants after this fall’s corn harvest could grow well beyond the 721 acres he enrolled in a Natural Resources Conservation Service program.

“If this works … I would do it on the whole farm,” Loe said.

Loe, 46, runs 3,700 acres of corn and soybeans with his wife, children and parents. The fourth-generation family farm spans Lyon and Yellow Medicine counties. The NRCS contract will cut the risk.

The Yellow Medicine River Watershed qualified for NRCS’ $123,740 National Water Quality Initiative funds because, as a One Watershed, One Plan pilot site, it had a targeted, prioritized plan backed by science and Clean Water Funds. The dollar amount will grow as the result of a reallocation.

The cover crop plantings could serve as a demonstration plot for farmers throughout the four-county watershed.

Loe summed up his reasons for trying cover crops in two words: Soil erosion.

“There’s only so much soil, and we’ve got to protect it. Wind and water — those are the two main antagonists,” Loe said.

Heavy rains sometimes cut gullies into the clay-loam fields, carrying pollutants with the eroding soil. The 721 acres Loe plans to seed this fall with a winter rye mix includes a quarter-mile of Cottonwood Lake shoreline. Cottonwood Lake is surrounded by the city of Cottonwood and by farmland. It’s impaired for aquatic recreation.

Loe’s parents live on the lake, which he describes as green.

The cover crop would benefit the lake by reducing erosion. The contract would give Loe three seasons to determine which seed mix, planting method and tillage option work best. Among the concerns: Whether cover-crop residue will keep soil cool enough to delay spring planting.

“It was a good opportunity to learn the ins and outs and see how they work and what might work best,” Loe said.

“I hope to limit — or eliminate, if possible — as much of that (soil erosion) as we can. Also there’s a green fertilizer value. Anytime you have something growing that’s green out there, it’s going to bring you soil fertility,” Loe said.

NWQI contracts also will make possible a smaller cover crop site near Cottonwood Lake, a nutrient management plan and possibly a fourth project.