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Serving: IN

How to prevent Dust Bowl conditions in 2021

Tom J. Bechman cover crop and specialty crops
IMPROVE SOIL: These commercial growers in Hendricks County, Ind., use cover crops in a land-intensive system for specialty crops.
Cover crops can help prevent soil from blowing after summer crops are harvested.

Last fall, many southern Indiana residents posted pictures on social media of blowing sand that blocked visibility on state and county highways. These Dust Bowl-like pictures were taken in several counties known for growing the best produce in the state. Now is the time for specialty crop producers to plan to prevent this scenario from being repeated in the fall of 2021.

Producers strategize in January and February when selecting hybrids, crop location, spring tillage, planting dates and approximate picking dates. Producers also should think about how they will be treating fields after harvest.

With produce, there is usually more tillage in the spring and fall. In addition, due to the number of equipment trips across the field, soil compaction and poor infiltration are common. Cover crops such as cereal rye, annual ryegrass and barley have deep-rooting potential. They also have good vegetative growth capability above the surface that will begin to repair soil structure, reduce compaction, and increase infiltration and organic matter. Cover crops can be part of the healing process for the soil after growing produce to achieve a healthy and productive soil.

Cover crops such as radishes and turnips act as scavengers of nutrients. Many produce crops require large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. The living roots of a cover crop latch onto these nutrients that are left over after the season and hold them in place until the cover crop is terminated.

Producers are very quick to look for places to save money. For many, planting cover crops seems like a “nonproducing” investment. It is always hard to put a value on something when you can’t take it to the grain elevator and walk away with a check. The return on the investment in cover crops needs to be calculated by assigning a value to the tons of topsoil blown or washed away over winter, the leftover nitrogen and phosphorus that is lost with leaching and runoff, and the loss of income for the next cash crop due to increased runoff from soil compaction and poor infiltration.

Use in-season

Many specialty crops can be negatively impacted by blowing sand during the season. The use of cover crops — whether by no-tilling the crop and having a rye mulch or by leaving strips of undisturbed standing rye — will aid in reducing damage from sandblasting.

A deterrent to no-till farming for pumpkin producers has been weed pressure. There are only a few herbicides that growers can use. This is where cover crops come into play. Crimping the cover crop to terminate it lays a thick mulch on the field, which keeps weed pressure down. The mulch also prevents the crop from resting on the ground, thus keeping it clean.

Anyone new to no-till pumpkin growing should listen to this Soil Health Podcast. Amanda and Jacob Baird, Nathan Johanning, and Rod Johnson talk about tips and tricks for successful U-pick no-till pumpkins. The Bairds are relatively new to no-till pumpkins. Johanning has been no-tilling pumpkins for more than a dozen years. Johnson is a fourth-generation producer in northwest Indiana who added no-till pumpkins a few years ago.

Hackman is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Schroeder is the northern program manager for the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative. Both write on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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