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The Keys to Cover Crops

The Keys to Cover Crops
If you're new to cover crops, start slow and ramp up over time

Farmers are trying lots of unique ideas to get cover crops established early, before cold weather. That includes flying seed into standing crops, seeding into standing crops using high-clearance sprayers and seeding off of corn heads, grain platforms and in front of vertical tillage or minimum tillage tools.

Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind., went a step further this summer and tried seeding at sidedressing time. He applied crimson clover off of his Nitrogen applicator on some acres to test the concept. He rigged up a seeder and plumbed hoses to drop seed every 30 inches. He used diffusers to help spread the seed out over more width than just where it would otherwise drop.

Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind., tried seeding cover crops this summer at sidedressing. Some of the clover germinated.

At least some of the clover germinated. The jury is still out on whether this will be a viable approach or not. Meanwhile, he's already thinking about next year. He wants to modify the seeder to seed annual ryegrass.

Starkey, who was recently named a Master Farmer by our sister publication Indiana Prairie Farmer, is known for trying new things. He's also a champion on conservation and the environment.

"The unique thing on our farm is water quality," he says. "Most of our water goes into Eagle Creek reservoir (near Indianapolis), so we have a lot of people watching us. We work with a local university monitoring tile outlets for water quality and we learn from each other.

"We're going a step farther with the help of NRCS this year, with a program called Edge of Field monitoring. This is intense monitoring of tile outlets, and I assume it will be watched closely by others. We're excited about that. We want clean water and want to use Nitrogen and Phosphorous in a conservation way."

Starkey's neighbor and good friend Jack Maloney has seeded several hundred acres of rye grass cover crops. He likes the soil and water benefits. "It's actually filtering the water for the reservoir," he says. "The nitrate level is higher on the north side and lower going out of our fields on the south." 

What's the key to successful cover crops? "Start small," says Maloney. "I started with 80 acres, then just ramped up. I don't suggest you jump into it over night because it's a step up in management; you have to be on your game."

Planting equipment must be top notch and able to handle sod. "If you don't have 100% coverage that doesn't mean it failed," adds Maloney. "If you have 30% emergence, that will work."

Carl Schmitz, who farms in far southwestern Indiana near Wadesville, makes another good point: "Find seed that works in your area," he says. "We're technically in Indiana but we're actually south of Louisville, KY. Cereal rye seems to work well for us, but every time we've tried rye grass it gets way too much growth and we have a difficult time killing it."

Above all, be patient and do your homework. "Talk to other farmers who have gone through it before you jump in," advises Maloney.

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