Taking cover crops to the next level

By Matt Reese

For Dave Brandt, the soil-building benefits of cover crops have been addictive. He is constantly experimenting to find new ways to build the soils on his Fairfield County farm.

Brandt is also very willing to share what he has learned with others. As farmers look to expand beyond the cover crop basics, there are other things to consider, Brandt said.

“Any legume cover needs the right inoculant. Soybean inoculant is only for soybeans,” he said. “Each crop has its own inoculant and, without the right inoculant, you have wasted you money on cover crop seed. Make sure your seed supplier can answer your questions.”

It is also important to adjust management details for the specifics of the farm. Brandt has been able to ratchet down his fertilizer and herbicide use on the farm, but does not suggest making major changes right away.

“These are the kinds of things you tweak as you go along based on what you are seeing in your fields,” he said. “With herbicides, you should keep you program in place until you feel comfortable making changes. After three years or so you can start to think about reducing fertilizer, though you can reduce nitrogen sooner.”

Brandt looks for cereal rye residue in his soybean fields. This spring there was a thick mat of the rye in this field, but, by this point in the season, it has mostly disappeared from the soil surface. Earthworms have pulled most of the residue into the soil.

This year, Brandt is experimenting with inter-seeding cover crops into corn and soybeans and fiddling around with cover crop cocktails to test their benefits and challenges. Neither has proven to be very successful.

For the inter-seeding, Brandt went through corn and soybean fields a week or so after they were planted and planted a soybean (in the corn) or a sun hemp cover crop.

“The inter-seeding could be a problem with the cover crops competing for moisture with the corn and soybeans, but it is not a problem this year because, with the dry weather, none of the cover crops came up,” he said. “This was not the year to try the inter-seeding.”

Brandt has also struggled to find success with the cover crop blends he has tried. This year he is working on some high carbon blends and some high nitrogen blends in a number of experimental fields. Crops in the blends include: cereal rye, hairy vetch, radishes, winter pea, crimson clover, pearl millet, sorghum, cow pea, Ethiopian cabbage, sunflower, fava bean, sun hemp, sudangrass, ryegrass, phacelia and triticale.  He has as many as 10 cover crops planted in some fields.

The soil benefits are ramped up significantly with the blends, but the management challenges make them almost unworkable.

“The blends do increase the soil health more rapidly, but I am not sure they are the answer,” he said. “I could see blends working well for livestock operations that need late season pasture. They can be planted after wheat and livestock could graze them halfway down. The livestock can reduce the biomass to make it easier to manage while converting some of those nutrients to manure.”

Brandt has also been working on developing a cover crop mix for gardeners that can be seeded in the fall and planted into the following spring. The cover crops reduce the need for tillage, suppress weeds, sequester nutrients and provide habitat for beneficial insects.

For those wanting to learn more, Brandt is hosting the Ohio No-Till Field Day on Sept. 13 that will feature nationally known speakers, no-till tips and, of course, cover crops.

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