Farm Fresh: Cover Crops Improve Soils

A couple years ago Case IH did a nationwide survey of farmers asking them which new farming practice they planned to adopt for the first time that year. Out of all the new technologies out there, a whopping 24% of farmers said cover crops.

Depending on the cover crop you choose, you can get benefits including a reduction in soil erosion, increased soil organic matter, feed for grazing, a reduction in soil compaction, more beneficial microbial life, higher levels of plant-available nutrients for your next crop, weed suppression and more. Cover crops should improve the long-term and short-term health of your soil.

If you are considering cover crops on your farm, here are our top 5 tips:

1) While you can seed a cover crop anytime you want, you may not get enough benefit out of it if you don’t have at least 45 to 60 days until your first killing frost. If you are worried you will only have 30 or 45 days of growth after harvest, try aerial seeding to get your crop established just before harvest. That will give your cover crop more total days to grow.

2) Use a blend. By picking multiple crop species, you have a better chance to accomplish more of your goals. Plus, you are less likely to have a disaster, like if one crop doesn’t get started well or if your only crop choice doesn’t support mycorrhizae fungi. Our best suggestion for a blend involves at least one grass species (e.g. rye, oats, wheat), one legume species (e.g. soybeans, peas) and one non-legume broadleaf (e.g. radish, turnip).

3) Invest $15 to $20 per acre. You don’t need to seed high rates of most cover crops to do well. You can certainly go with more plants if you want, but a general rule of thumb is to invest around the $15 to $20 range.

4) Use the best herbicides to kill weeds in your crops without much regard for your cover crops. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t want to see lots of carryover hurting all your cover crops so much that nothing grows, but your cash crop pays the bills. Make sure you get the weeds out of your cash crop to maximize your profit. Then, work with your agronomist to pick the right cover crops following your cash crop and herbicide selections.

5) If you are worried about your soil being too cold in the spring due to the cover, you can terminate your cover crop earlier in the fall. Fall is also a great time to kill perennial and winter annual weeds, so you get a double-benefit by spraying a herbicide in the fall.

Our number one piece of advice with cover crops is this – TRY THEM. If you’ve never planted a cover crop before, you will likely be uncertain about them. The best way to learn is to simply plant some cover crops side-by-side with bare ground and see what cover crops can do for you. We also have many farmers trying aerial seeding or seeding with a Hagie prior to harvest. We are big believers in cover crops in most situations, as they can help improve your soil health, your yields and your profits.

In 2015, VITAL will feature two of America’s most well-known and respected farming experts. Not only are Darren and Brian Hefty successful farmers and agronomists, but they also host the popular television and radio show Ag PhD. Their programs help farmers take their operation from good to great by sharing information ranging from how to maximize your fertilizer program & tiling to stopping those yield-robbing insects and crop diseases and more. If you’d like to learn where you can watch or listen to Ag PhD, you can find the listings at agphd.com.




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