Deciding if Cover Crops are Right for Your Situation

cover-crop2Because Midwest farmers were prevented from planting corn or soybeans on so many acres in 2013, many of them planted cover crops to help prevent essential nutrients like water and nitrogen from running off into rivers and lakes.  Cover crops also help control weeds and overcome erosion, which can result when fields are left fallow.

Some farmers, whose fields were left fallow all summer long, are now questioning whether or not to plant a cover crop.  They need to first ask themselves what their goal is:  Manage nutrients?  Curb erosion?  Avoid compaction?  Control weeds?

Consider your big picture goals and determine whether a cover crop could help you achieve those goals.  One popular cover crop is radishes, which are easy to plant.  Because radishes often die before spring planting begins, there is a reduced risk of competition for spring seedlings of corn or soybeans.  One downfall of radishes, however, is they only have one taproot.  Annual ryegrass, however, has hair roots to help penetrate hard-packed soils.

Benefits_CoverCropsIf you choose annual ryegrass as your crop of choice, mid-October is the latest it should be planted to avoid frost before the desired 8-10 inch height is reached.  Aerial application or drilling in are the most common ways of planting, but both methods have pros and cons.  Flying on seed in corn fields needs a good rain to help incorporate those seeds into the soil.  In a soybean field, farmers may risk ricochet in the soybean canopy.  Drilling is the most accurate way in both scenarios.

If cover cropping is a strategy for your operation, begin implementing it into your overall crop plan now.  Start slow in small fields, one at a time.  One strategy would be to start with your worst field, allowing you to get a system in place without influencing your top-performing fields.  Planning your strategy early will also help secure seed and other needed inputs well in advance when supply is available.