Cover crops 101

By Matt Reese

With more talk about the incredible range of benefits of cover crop use, even some stalwart holdouts are considering trying a few cover crop fields this fall.

But, like anything else, there is a learning curve with the management challenges of cover crops. Many cover crop veterans feel the easiest way to get a start in cover crops is cereal rye followed by soybeans.

“If I had a 40-acre field, I would allot maybe 10 or 20 acres and try cereal rye or wheat.

Greg McGlinch, a technician for the Darke County Soil and Water Conservation District at a Miami County talked cover crops at a field day.

Wheat is a little cheaper and guys tend to have more knowledge about it,” said Greg McGlinch, technician for the Darke County Soil and Water Conservation District at a Miami County cover crop field day. “I would go with 35 to 50 pounds an acre with the cereal rye and maybe mix in 1.5 to 3 pounds of radishes with that to create a little drainage in the soil. The best way to plant it is to drill it. That allows for better seed to soil contact and, if you’re spending the money, treat it like a cash crop. I have heard of planting cereal rye up to Nov. 1 and, in a couple of cases, even up to Thanksgiving.”

The cover crops can capitalize on unused nitrogen in the soil, especially when following corn.

“There is usually some residual nitrogen there from the soybeans or the corn, especially with the year we had. The cover crops can tap into that and hold it in the fields into the 2013 growing season,” McGlinch said. “Make sure when you go into spring, get a good herbicide program set up. We use a glyphosate/2,4-D mixture and we actually spike it with a little N to get a quick burndown and get a good carbon to nitrogen balance in that soil. Just watch the temperature and the weather patterns in the spring when you are trying to control cover crops. This year I know a lot of guys had a bad taste in their mouth with the clovers because they pulled some moisture out of the soil.”

Cereal rye is a good introductory cover crop because it can be planted after soybeans or corn, it is fairly easy to kill and it offers numerous benefits in a short timeframe. David Brandt, a long-time advocate of cover crops, plants nearly all of his soybeans into cereal rye that was planted the previous fall in late October or early November. He has successfully gotten stands of rye established when planting as late as Nov. 25. Brandt plants closer to the 50-pound per acre rate for later dates, and closer to 30-pound per acre rate when planting in late August or early September. He plants cover crops with his White Air Planter.

The following spring, Brandt plants soybeans right into the living rye and foregoes the herbicide application.

“If it is heading or starting to head, and you plant right into it, it will die when you run over it. If it is not heading, you will have to burn it down,” he said. “The rye does not work well before corn because they are both grasses.”

The rye leaves a thick mat around the beans that holds in moisture and suppresses weeds. It has also helped reduce pest and disease problems.

Brandt said that farmers interested in trying cover crops might want to try cereal rye before soybeans due to its ease of implementation into numerous cropping systems.

“Just pick a field or two and give it a try,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to try. Cover crops seem to respond better to no-till, especially long term no-till.”

Brand also likes the winter pea and crimson clover for late September planting, though they will not grow much before winter. When drilled, Ohio State University Extension recommends planting winter peas a 50 to 80 pounds per acre and using inoculant specifically for peas or vetch. Crimson clover should be drilled at a rate of 10 to 20 pounds per acre and spring herbicide control is important. A handy resource is the new Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide from the Midwest Cover Crop Council.

Cover crop seed is available from many sources including Byron Seeds, LLC (Dennis Brown, 765-546-2494), Cover Crop Solutions, the Seed Center 
in Ostrander and through Brandt in Carroll.

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One comment

  1. Do small home gardens benefit from planting a cover crop such as cereal rye?
    How do you remove the rye in spring when you plant your green beans, tomatoes, radishes, and cucumbers?

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