If a farmer invests the time and money to plant a winter cover crop, he should manage it like a crop, believes Russell Winter.
Winter grows hairy vetch on his farm near Bellflower, MO. Vetch holds soil on his rolling land in place through winter, fixes nitrogen for the following corn crop and produces a marketable seed crop.
He no-till drills vetch after wheat harvest, kills it with a herbicide the following spring, then follows with no-till corn. But he leaves enough vetch to make seed for his needs, plus some to sell.
He drills 15-20 lbs of the hard, round vetch seed per acre, usually in mid-August.
"Vetch makes 6-8" of growth before frost," Winter reports. "The top growth freezes back to form a thick mat of vegetation on the soil surface. Roots and crowns stay alive through cold weather, and the plants start growing again in late winter.
"Hairy vetch puts 80 lbs or more of nitrogen in the soil," he continues. "I inoculate seed with a special C culture for lentils, peas and vetches. And, as I save seed from vetch grown here each year, it seems to become more adaptable to my soils and conditions all the time."
When he first seeded hairy vetch, Winter faced a lot of critics.
"Some people said it would never survive the winter, but I haven't had any trouble with winterkill," he reports. "Others said vetch would get out of hand and overrun my farm, but I kill it back with only a half-pint of 2,4-D. It certainly hasn't turned into a noxious weed on my place."
Winter uses a four-crop rotation: winter wheat, vetch, corn, soybeans. His corn yields 150-180 bu/acre; his soybeans, 40-plus bu/acre.
Thanks to the nitrogen fixed by the vetch, he gets by with 80-100 lbs/acre of fertilizer N on corn.
And Winter gets almost as much benefit from the second crop - soybeans - as from the corn grown after vetch. He reasons that the long-rooted legume, or the earthworms attracted to the soil under it, pump phosphorus and potash from deep in the soil.
"I believe that may be why beans respond so well the year after corn," he opines.
Winter grows vetch mainly for winter cover and nitrogen fixation. But at 400 lbs or more of vetch seed per acre, that income makes a tidy supplement to the soybean, corn and wheat crops.
"I have one seed customer who has a standing order for 3,000 lbs at 55 cents/lb."
Harvesting vetch seed is hard work. The plants lodge badly, and if the pea-like vines are too green, they wrap and clog the combine reel. If vetch is too dry, seed shatters.
"I sometimes leave as much seed on the ground as I get in the bin," admits Winter. "But I hate to farm over terraces; with a vetch cover crop and no-till, I don't need terraces."