By: Kriss Nelson, The Messenger News Editor
Brent Larson and Mark Thompson, both producers and farm managers at Sunderman Farm Management Company, have been utilizing the practice of cover cropping alongside other conservation efforts on their family farms.
“Not only do we manage farmland at Sunderman Farm Management Company where we professionally manage and promote soil health ideas and cover crops, we don’t just talk about it at the office, we are actually farmers as well and doing this on our own farms,” said Larson. “We are able to do this with a base of knowledge from our own experience, our own success and failures on our family farms and that is unique in our world of the professional farm management industry.”
The time is now
According to Larson and Thompson, the earlier you can get a cover crop seeded is the better.
Typically around the Labor Day timeframe is a popular time to get the cover crop aerial seeded or broadcasted, they said with a unit such as a Hagie Hi-boy sprayer.
Thompson advises if you are a producer that has seed corn acres or have been chopping silage or previously harvested some small grains you also have an even wider window of opportunity to put that ground into some cover crops, giving that soil some added protection throughout the rest of the summer and fall seasons.
As far as this year, those producers that have been affected by the drought, it is definitely time to be assessing your fields and see if it is applicable for a cover crop application.
“If that crop is lush green then you don’t want to be broadcasting a cover crop into it,” said Larson. “But, in our area, we will be getting going on that soon. A lot of that will be dependent if the corn is lodged or not, if you can get a Hagie Hi-boy through the corn or if we will do aerial seeding or wait to drill it or broadcast it after harvest.”
Thompson said a simple way to tell if it is time for a cover crop seeding, whether it is in to corn or soybean fields is if there is light hitting the ground.
“I tell guys to go out to your field. Get on your hands and knees and if you can see light hitting the ground, then it is time to start,” he said.
In addition to broadcasting or aerial seeding the cover crop seed into a standing crop, if there is time allowed, utilizing a drill or planter are other options.
“If there is any way possible to get the crop off and get it drilled, it helps with good seed-to-soil contact,” said Larson. “You will be able to use a lower rate, get a better stand and better emergence and be happier with it overall.”
With the potential of an early harvest that could allow for a larger window of opportunity to actually plant the cover crop seed after harvest.
“Soybean harvest is going to be a month earlier than last year for us,” said Thompson. “We harvested soybeans last year in the second half of October. This year, we are going to have soybeans harvested the second half of September.”
Thompson said several producers have also utilized their narrow row planters for getting their cover crops seeded, which is a convenient way to get it done and utilize an implement you already have in your machine shed.
Another option has been broadcasting the seed and lightly incorporating it as well.
What to plant and where to get it
Larson said many of the local cooperatives, if you give them time to plan ahead, have been able to get their producers cover crop seed. Otherwise, Iowa Cover Crop, he said is a great resource for seed.
Winter cereal rye seems to be one of the most common forage grasses used for cover cropping in the state of Iowa, but there are also some mixes of utilizing brassicas that are available as well.
“It is nice to have a mix of cover crops if you can,” said Larson. “The hard part is finding a good mix and getting it seeded early enough.”
In this area, if you can have an early seeding date, Larson said mix options could include a tillage radish or a canola along with a grass crop such as oats or rye.
For Thompson, he has chosen to use very few brassica varieties.
“In late season, we don’t have enough of a growing season,” he said. “Maybe this year we will because it is going to be a little earlier and maybe it will be warmer, versus the last couple of years when it has been close to snow on the ground when we are done harvesting.”
Brassica varieties can also be more expensive.
“If I can’t get enough growth out of them I don’t see them as a good investment,” Thompson said.
For Thompson, he prefers a mix of forage grasses such as cereal rye, winter wheat, tritcale and oats.
“I personally use a lot of mix of rye and oats,” he said. “We use the oats to encourage the microbial fungi growth after harvest – when the crop starts to end their season, which is shortly – to keep that living root in the ground. They (the oats) winter kill and then you have less cereal rye to terminate in the spring.”
If the fact your cover crop has to be terminated in the spring is what is keeping you from trying a cover crop, an oats mixed with cereal rye will be very helpful.
“I use cereal rye and a little more oats going into corn. The oats will sequester nutrients but when it dies, I won’t have as thick of growth of cereal rye going into the spring,” he said. “If you don’t want to deal with any termination in the spring, oats are a great option. They just need to be on right away or on already to get some growth. You need to have a good solid couple of months of good warmth for them to grow.”
For Larson, he said he will seed cereal rye in corn residue that is rotating back into soybeans, as cereal rye come next spring, can be managed easier in soybeans versus corn.
For soybean fields that are going into corn the following spring, Larson said he favors planting triticale.
“It doesn’t grow near as aggressively in my corn in the spring,” he said. “Triticale is a cross between wheat and cereal rye. It grows well, has a good root system below ground, it is easier to manage, but we still get the benefits of having the root growing in the soil as much as possible.”
One option, Thompson encourages producers to try is putting some cover crops into corn residue this fall and no-till planting soybeans next spring.
“That is by far the easiest way. Go in, no-till beans with a regular planter that you have – you don’t need anything fancy. I have lots of operators that have switched to that system and they are happy with it,” he said.
With this process, termination can be done after planting“Brent and I like to plant most of ours green. We plant our beans into green, growing cereal rye and then terminate it after that,” he said.
Funding and assistance
Larson said the best place to start is with your county’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for any questions and potential funding opportunities.
“The NRCS office has become knowledgeable on cover crops over the years and it is important to follow the NRCS guidelines so there is no negative impact on crop insurance,” said Larson. “They can help you succeed to avoid failure, give you advice. And there is money out there. They are really trying to get more cover crop acres out.”
Larson said there are $25 an acre available to producers who are seeding a cover crop for the first time and $15 an acre for those that have utilized the practice in the past.
Other incentives include funds from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as well as other funding opportunities available through private industries.
For another decision making tool, Thompson suggests the online calculator available by the Midwest Cover Crop Council.
“It allows you to go through different scenarios so you know what you want to do and what your expectations are and what your goal is – it is pretty unique,” he said.
Drought and cover crops
With dry conditions taking up a large portion of Iowa, will there be enough moisture to grow a cover crop this year?
“The way I see it is, it is dry, but typically September brings you some rainfall,” he said. “If you have the seed out there and it gets a half-inch of rain on it and moistens up the top, it will germinate. It is amazing, I harvested rye in July – in the middle of no rain at all and there was some of it growing within the week that had come out of the back of the combine.”
With the lack of rainfall, is another reason to get those cover crops seeded early. “The more you increase that timeframe by having it on there earlier, there’s a better chance to catch a rain,” said Thomp- son. “I wouldn’t wait for a rain and then put it on.” If you are choosing to drill or plant the cover crop after harvest, this is another opportunity to look for that moisture level and set the planter or drill accordingly.
Cover crops could be very beneficial in drought conditions. “Any year, including a drought year, when the microbes have been dormant, when there’s not enough moisture in the ground to help promote microbial activity, things just kind of slow down,” said Larson. “And a drought isn’t going to last forever. You want to go ahead and get the cover crop seeded. Once there is moisture those roots will go down and promote that microbial activity to keep the soil as healthy as possible for next year and take any excess moisture out if we have some this fall or next spring.” There could be some lingering nutrients in the soil that wasn’t taken in by the crops this year that could be of concern.
“Cover crops can sequester nutrients that weren’t utilized by the crops – especially in the areas of the state that are highly animal intensive with manure applications – there is a lot of fertility levels and those are perfect opportunities to plant cover crops and sequester those nutrients in the plant’s root and shoot and keep it there for next year’s crop instead of letting it go into the tile,” said Thompson.
Larson is especially concerned for those fields that received an in-season nitrogen application.
“That nitrogen is still sitting there, dried out. The roots haven’t been able to access it but it also hasn’t leached out of the system because the rainfall hasn’t been there in that drought area,” he said. “At some point the rains will come and if you have a living root there in the form of something like cereal rye, it should grab it in and hang on to it and release it something next summer for the next crop.”
Cover crops just might be worth the try
Larson said trying cover crops doesn’t necessarily mean making a large investment.
“A farmer has to look at what equipment they have, and how they can get started,” he said. “They don’t need a whole new line of equipment. It doesn’t take any major changes.” Larson suggests starting small. “I encourage folks if they are interested, to split a field and do half and half to see how it works,” he said. “Give it a real try. Think through your management system to make sure you can have the best success you can on those acres. It doesn’t break the bank, especially if you are just starting out and can use some of the funding that is available.”