Plan now for cover crops
Thinking about next year’s cover crops in the middle of July, while this year’s corn is tasseling and soybeans are blooming? That’s the thing about cover crops, every day they’re growing (without interfering with your corn or soybean crop) is another day they have to build and protect your soil. So, yes, it’s time to be thinking about next year’s cover crop right now.
For starters, if you used cover crops last year, you might want to take a spade to your fields to see just what last year’s cover crop did for your soil, or what the past few years have done if you’ve used cover crops longer. Check how deep your corn roots are going into the ground, and see if they’re following channels left by cover crop roots deeper into the soil profile. Check the tilth of your soil, and maybe do an infiltration test or two, and compare that against fields that didn’t have cover crops. In other words, verify soil improvements from the practice.
Dig into the soil
“Just look at the roots and the earthworms after you’ve tried cover crops and no-till, and you can see what they’re doing for soil health,” says Don McCool of Guthrie County. “Anytime you dig soil up and it’s crumbly and has lots of worms in it, you know you’re making your soil healthier. You just won’t find worms in a spade full of soil, of tilled soil, like you will in a no-till and cover crop field. To me that’s the soil telling us it’s healthier.”
McCool, who farms in partnership with his brother Jeff, aerial-seeded cereal rye on 420 acres near Bayard Sept. 9. “I think we’re seeing some change in the soil in just the first year of cover crops because of the root mass they leave behind and because all those microorganisms are getting something to eat,” he says. McCool has no-tilled for about 15 years and has been reading about cover crops for the past five years.
“We made the decision to try cover crops five years ago, but we wanted to study them — read and go to meetings and field days to learn how to do it right,” he says. “We think we’ve done our homework. This practice will definitely build organic matter in the soil. Maybe you can’t build it overnight, but you sure can do it faster with cover crops.
“If you think about what an alfalfa field does for the soil, when you rotate alfalfa with corn and soybeans, you can relate to what a cover crop might do for a field.”
McCool says financial incentives are still available for cover crops, and that’s another reason to plan ahead now for next year’s cover crop. “There’s enough good publicity about cover crops that the practice is going to grow fast, I believe. It will be huge in the future, but I think you do need incentives to get people to try it at first.
“The incentives allowed us to try things without knowing for sure there will be a financial return,” he adds.
“I feel comfortable with cover crops but have concerns about whether we can always kill them on time in the spring. A big concern is getting the corn planted on time; we do have to wait for the herbicides to kill the cover crops before we can plant,” McCool adds.
Is he convinced he should keep growing cover crops? “I’m trying them for three years. With that much time, we can look at all the costs and benefits, and see the variability and make an educated decision on whether to continue.”
McCool and his brother are using cover crops on about 20% of their corn and soybean acreage. He’s started discussions on cover crops with landlords. “I want cover crops on rented land even though it may benefit the owner more than me, because I want the owner to know that I’m going to take care of his or her land. The landowners have been receptive to that.
“So far I’ve stayed the same on inputs, other than the cover crop seed,” McCool says. “We sidedress N on corn. We don’t put any nitrogen on in the fall, and we use a liquid fertilizer. We apply less nitrogen than most growers do, but we’re trying to apply even less nitrogen now.”
On search for new covers
He says that means down the road he might be looking at other species, such as a legume in the cover crop mix. “In front of corn we need to find something other than cereal rye, because waiting in the spring to plant corn can be a killer,” he says. “We have to come up with a better way to farm intensively, and still protect and improve our soils. We just can’t do it with straight corn and beans. I’m hoping using cover crop mixes will be the key to that.”
One thing McCool did this year was cut and bale about 50 acres of cereal rye on flatter fields just before spraying the cover crop with herbicide and planting soybeans. He got a mixture of last year’s cornstalks and rye in the bales.
“I think we could also do this on sloping ground and still have very effective cover, especially with the soil-holding power of the roots,” he says.
The McCools have 150 head of Angus-Tarentaise cows. ”We’ll grind these bales up and put bran cake with them and let the cows eat it,” Jeff says.
Betts writes from Johnston.
This article published in the July, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.