Handling cover crops in a challenging spring

first_imgShare Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest Nathan Long and Jim Case, who farm in Delaware County, have learned to expect great things when planting into a cover crop.“Our soil structure and drainage have definitely improved. We see a lot more water percolation through the ground. We were doing this in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up and we had livestock and a nice rotation,” Case said. “We have gotten away from that and the soil structure has suffered. The microbial activity with the cover crops really helps and we are getting a better more uniform seedbed. Then we have a mat of organic matter that holds moisture through the summer.”In the spring, for planting, they typically kill off the cover crop if it is not already dead.“If you’re going to plant into it green I would expect the cover crop to pull up the excess moisture we’ve had this spring. The top six inches of tilth from the roots will let the planter run easier and it will close up easier. You don’t have to work the ground to a powder to plant,” Long said. “All of our stuff has been killed this spring, and we have been no-tilling for awhile. The soil structure is there, though, so it drains off well. With a cover crop, the organic matter forms a sponge and when you drive over it, it will come right back.”Long and Case typically use cereal rye on corn stalks going to soybeans and annual rye on the soybean stalks going into corn for the improved carbon to nitrogen ratio. “We have tried other mixes too. We used radishes, clover, and cereal rye last year and it formed a nice thick mat all winter and now there is less residue then some tilled fields,” Long said. “We have not really had any disasters. Timing is everything.”This year, though, the persistent rains and cool temperatures led to some tough cover crop situations in different parts of the state. In some of the worst situations, the cover crops (most notably cereal rye and annual ryegrass) got too tall because field conditions did not allow a timely spray application. Planting into tall living cover crops is an option for soybeans but is less appealing for planting corn.In some fields, the cover crop was sprayed and killed prior to planting corn, but then it rained and the cool temperatures left an un-plantable muddy mess with the dead cover crop holding in the moisture rather than helping dry the field. Glenn Harsh, who also farms in Delaware County, found himself in a similar situation this spring.“If it gets tall and you kill it, you can have a problem if it gets wet. I crossed my fingers and in my situation the cover crop hadn’t completely died and took up enough water to let me get in,” Harsh said. “The first day I went to plant, it was still wet, but I got away with planting because the roots are so fibrous and the slot closes easier.”Other dead cover crop/wet field situations have been addressed with some shallow vertical tillage (for example a Great Plains Turbo Max). One such field was tilled after waiting to dry when conditions finally warmed up. After the tillage pass, the field sat for a day before planting the corn.There are a myriad of ways to manage cover crops, but two keys to success with these challenging situations, though, seem to be cooperative weather and the patience to wait for it.last_img

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