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Cover Crop the Lifetime Investment

Aug 12, 2021

By Terry Aukes and Blake Groeneweg

It’s hard to believe the 2021 silage chopping season is about to begin in a few weeks and after all that green forage is removed, I hope the next thought is “I need a cover crop!” Although there is a lot of cover crops used for silage ground around here, the grain harvesting producer can benefit from cover crops as well.

First, let’s look at the silage acre. I hope growers today are putting in a cover crop on every acre that gets chopped. It just makes sense! The picture below shows how much rich fertile dirt is moved with water during a rain event showing the visible soil loss. An estimated 50 tons of soil could end up in the water streams hurting the producer and the ecosystem in the end. Bare soil can move easily under these conditions with moisture and wind erosion. 7 tons of dirt per acre is the estimated soil loss on bare ground due to wind erosion. That is 7 tons of rich black topsoil just blown away! By planting a cover crop you can protect your soil, keeping it on your farm, where it can be productive and useful for generations to come because when it’s gone it never comes back.

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This acre is a great place to plant a mix of things because there can be a lot of growing season left. I would recommend a grower to seed this acre with a drill over aerial because of field traffic and corn is not allowing 50% sunlight to the ground to get the seeds growing. I would also recommend either oats or rye to get a good root system. Radishes and turnips will help break up compaction.

The grain acre can be more challenging to get a cover crop started due to the crop is harvested so much later and puts the grower up against the frost windows. There has been good success with aerial application if the field receives good moisture to get the cover crop growing and to keep it alive. Below is a timeline of rye aerial seeded as a cover crop.

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Here are a couple of things in corn we would like to see before getting a cover crop flown on:
  1. Herbicide, did you spray something that may not let it grow?
  2. Next is there 50% sunlight to the ground?
  3. A more important question is about moisture. Is there enough moisture to get the seed going and to keep it growing?
Unfortunately, cover crops can be very weather dependent, but the healthier your soil is, the better chance for success.

When pairing cover crops with soybeans, we need to consider timing. If your aerial applying cover crop on a soybean field, you need to time the application just before the leaves start to fall off to get the soil to seed contact. The leaves lay over top of the seed, trap it in the soil, and provide a little moisture trap for the cover crop seed. If your bean variety is an early enough maturity you can also drill a winter-hardy crop in after harvest but typically you are getting closer to that frost date and probably would want to stick to winter rye.

As we progress in the soil health aspect, we have also noticed fields with better soil health also have more success establishing cover crops. If you are observing the soil in your field and the condition of the soil, you will understand. If you walk out into your field and there is residue and hard caked soil on top, not much of anything wants to live in your soil. If you have healthy living soil with earthworm activity breaking down residue, the soil tilth is softer, making it a happy environment for plants. Typically, it takes 2 to 3 years to get your soil health up to a point the cover crop really starts working and getting soil like the picture below. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work out the first year!

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I believe growers that implement soil conservation practices will maintain healthy productive soil for generations to come. The practices we do now will either help or hinder the next generation farming the land.
Below are some bullet points on what cover crops can do and common cover crops used in the area along with seeding rates.
 
  1. Reduce soil erosion: Extensive root systems cling to the top layer of your soil creating an interior shield from erosion while top growth minimizes “splash” and wind erosion.
  2. Break up soil compaction: Deep burrowing roots will break through compacted soil to create pore space improving aeration, water movement, and helping soil organisms flourish.
  3. Sequester nutrients and reduce leaching: Cover crops aggressively scavenge and cycle nutrients from deep within the soil pro­le making them available in the root zone of subsequent crops to help improve yields and reduce erosion into sensitive watersheds.
  4. Build organic material: As cover crops grow, die and break-down, they add organic humus to soils, feeding soil microbes while improving soil tilth, health, and water holding capacity.
  5. Provide weed control: Cover crops create competition for winter annuals and other weeds shading them out and preventing them from robbing valuable moisture and nutrients from subsequent cash crops.
  6. Generate additional forage: Certain cover crop species can also be called “dual purpose,” meaning they can provide both the bene­fit of a soil cover and be managed as a forage source for livestock.

 

Fall Cereal Rye

Cereal rye has been used as a fall-planted crop for decades. Very few other species of cover crops can be planted so late in the fall and provide soil surface protection and weed prevention attributes as fall rye. Planting rate for Forage, Drill 1 ½ to 2 ½ Bu. Broadcast 2 to 3 bu. For Cover, Drill 1 to 1 1/2 Bu. Broadcast 2 Bu.

  • Prevents soil erosion
  • Ability to serve as an emergency forage
  • Builds organic soil matter
  • Aids in weed suppression
  • Captures residual nitrogen
  • Does not winter kill
 

Tillage Radish®

The superior genetics of Tillage Radish® cover crop is the secret weapon behind dependable, consistent results and measurable benefi­ts to the farmer the soil, and the environment. Radishes are shade intolerant. Straight Drill 6 lbs. - Broadcast 8 lbs. For blends cut it in half. Not recommend with forage rates of cereal rye.
  • Certified genetic purity
  • Scavenges nutrients
  • Reduces soil compaction
  • Suppresses weed growth
  • Enhances seedbed
  • Reduces inputs
  • Winter kills
 

Oats

Oats mix will grow rapidly in cool weather and is ideal for quick fall cover. Excellent mix partner with Tillage radishes as both will winter kill. Drill 1 to 1 1/2 bushel - broadcast 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 bushels
  • Builds organic soil matter
  • Good at controlling erosion
  • Scavenges nutrients
  • Winter kills
 

Purple Top turnips

Grow rapidly in the fall and provide excellent forage for grazing. They also attract wildlife. Drill 3 lbs. Broadcast 4 lbs.
  • Builds organic soil matter
  • Excellent grazing
  • Scavenges nutrients
  • Winter kills
 
Reminder: When doing a mix of products, it is a general rule to reduce the full rate in half.
Other options that have had limited success due to climate:
Crimson Clover
Winter Hairy Vetch
Austrian Winter Peas

Contact your CFE Agronomist to get started. 
 


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