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.

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.

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think ahead: While it’s been less than two months since Don McCool planted soybeans into last year’s cereal rye cover crop, he’s already thinking about his next cover crop.

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DIFFERENCE: In just one year of using cover crops, Don McCool says he can see differences in the structure and the life in the soil.

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COVER AFTER BALING: Baling last year’s cornstalks and knee-high cereal rye still left a heavy ground cover, as well as roots deep in the ground, to help protect against erosion after planting soybeans this spring.

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Iowa cover crops

Cover crop acres planted in 2013

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Greener springs coming

Don McCool says on top of all the other benefits of cover crops, they’re just plain pretty. “It’s quite appealing to see a green field in the off-season. The practice is so visual. When the public sees my green fields and feels good about it, that’s an indication to me I’m doing the right thing,” the Guthrie County farmer says.

While it’s difficult to get good figures on cover crop acreages, it’s clear that use of the practice is growing. In Iowa, five years ago, the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, was used to seed cover crops on about 4,000 acres. That exploded to 50,000 acres two years ago and now to 81,000 acres. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship offered more incentives last year for first-time cover crop users, and that resulted in 143,000 more acres.

The 2012 Ag Census says farmers reported many more acres than that; their 2012 figure for cover crops in Iowa is 379,614 acres. That ranks Iowa at ninth in the country.

“The figures point to more farmers using cover crops, and experienced users upping their acreages,” says Chad Watts, project director for the Conservation Technology Information Center in West Lafayette, Ind. Watts points out their reasons go beyond soil conservation. “Many are concerned about compaction. They are looking at the diversity of life in the soil, and the percentage of organic matter they have in their soils,” he says. “They are looking at their off-site impacts and how they can be more efficient with the products they use on their farms so that they have less impact on the environment. They’re seeing that cover crops lead to healthy soil and increased efficiency, and as they improve their soil, they can also improve profitability.”

This article published in the July, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Cover Crops

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