What is in this article?:
- Cover crops for beginners
- Which cover crops should I plant?
- How do I plant a cover crop?
- How do I kill the cover crop?
- What tillage practices are compatible with cover crops?
A recent survey of farmers by the Conservation Technology Information Center found that cover crops boosted corn yields by 9.6% during the drought year of 2012, and soybean yields by 11.6%. That’s compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops.
However, cover crops can also lower cash crop yields if not managed correctly, warns Hans Kok, Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, Indiana. In a dry spring, the cover crop may use up valuable soil moisture that the cash crop needs, says Joe Lauer, University of Wisconsin corn agronomist.
That’s why beginners should start small, Kok says. Instead of planting an entire field of cover crops, he suggests that first-timers put in a few strips at least as wide as the combine. “The combine yield monitor will show you if there is a yield difference.”
Cover crops' roots anchor the soil and nutrients when other crops aren't there to do the job. This is cereal rye.
Which cover crops should I plant?
Your goals, location, cropping practices, equipment and labor resources all affect your cover-crop choices, says Bowers, an annual ryegrass seed grower and co-owner of K B Seed Solutions.
Think about what you want to accomplish with your cover crop, says Sarah Carlson, Midwest cover crop research coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa. Do you need forage? Do you want to reduce erosion, break up compaction, scavenge soil N, build organic matter?
Roger Robinson and his father have grown cover crops for decades for forage and soil improvement on their continuous no-till grain and cattle operation near Orleans, Ind. After corn silage harvest, Robinson drills or broadcasts a mix of oats and Austrian winter peas, or oats and turnips. “These produce phenomenal biomass,” he says. After corn for grain or soybeans, he seeds annual ryegrass with turnips or oilseed radishes. If corn is the next crop, he’ll add some crimson clover, too.
The Midwest Cover Crops Council’s interactive decision tool suggests cover crops to meet specific goals and gives seeding date ranges by state and county: http://www.mccc.msu.edu/selectorINTRO.html.
Pay attention to seed quality, too, Robinson adds. “The demand for good cover-crop seed now exceeds the supply.” Work with an established cover-crop seed company that has a track record in your area.
Click graph for a larger format.