Smelly cover crops are savory to soils

By Matt Reese

While the odor of rotting oilseed radishes may not exactly be pleasant to wintertime passersby, the life in the soil finds these and the other cover crops in Bret and Gene Margraf’s Seneca County fields to be quite delightful. The farm has a corn-soybean-wheat rotation that generally includes planting annual ryegrass ahead of corn and cereal rye ahead of soybeans.

Cover crops are an important part of production for Bret and Gene Margraf on their Seneca County farm.

“The annual ryegrass roots allow for more root growth in the corn and more water holding capacity in the soil,” Bret said. “We let the cereal rye grow as tall as possible before the soybeans to control weeds. Cereal rye is one of the most effective plants at moving lime down into the soil and pulling nutrients up. Right now we’re seeing a lot of nutrients in the top inch of the soil and we need to get them deeper into the soil profile.”

The Margrafs have also success with winter peas after soybeans.

“We really liked the results. There seem to be great benefits from the nitrogen with those peas,” Bret said. “We’ve been looking at cutting back nitrogen rates in the future, but we haven’t gotten the courage to do that yet.”

They have gradually added more cover crops acres through the years based on the very positive results.

“This year all of the corn stubble, all of the wheat stubble and most of soybean ground has a cover crop. We have 900 acres of cover crops out of the 1,100 acres,” Bret said. “We planned to cover everything this fall, but it was just too wet to get everything done that we wanted. We just followed the combine with the drill to plant and we flew on the rye this fall. We’ve had pretty good success with planting up to about the second week of November.”

To date, the cover crops have fulfilled all of their jobs, but now the Margrafs see an even more important role for the cover crops on their farm.

“We started with a field or two on our rolling ground to prevent erosion,” Bret said. “Then we used cover crops more for managing moisture in the soil.  Now we try to cover the land for all of the biological benefits in the soil.”

This is what has led to the most recent experimentation with cover crop cocktails that include multiple types of cover crops planted together.

“These blends can work together and feed the soil with different sources of food for the microbes in the soil,” Bret said.

In a few experimental fields, they have been planting 1 to 2 pounds of the odiferous oilseed radishes, 5 pounds of ryegrass and 5 pounds of crimson clover per acre. The radishes are planted on 30-inch centers where the corn will be the following spring. The other cover crops are planted between those rows.

“This is the first year we have tried rows in the cover crop cocktails,” Bret said. “Hopefully that will minimize competition from the ryegrass with the corn.”

Though there are some great side effects, cover crop cocktails can cause headaches.

“Cover crops require patience because the weather doesn’t always cooperate,” he said. “This year, for example, we couldn’t control them in the fall, so we are hoping for a window to control them in the spring.”

Stay tuned for more from the Margrafs, who were the Ohio No-Till Council Outstanding No-Till Farmers of the Year.

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  1. We have been implementing some of the similar cover crops on our Darke County farm. We have seen some great improvents in yields and soil health. If you do not believe they work, try a slack test and the test will make you a believer. I would highly recommend any farmer to plant 20-40 acres just experiment and get their feet wet.

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