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5 ways to make one day worth a week’s cover crop growth

Steve Groff View of harvest from another tractor trailing behind
SHADOW YOUR HARVESTER: This should be your planter tractor view when planting cover crops.
Growing healthy soil: Cover crop expert lists five ways to make one day’s growth in September worth at least a week of October growth.

“Every day counts” is usually associated with spring planting season. Perfect weather seldom occurs. When it’s time to plant, you need to be ready to roll!

The same is true for fall cover crop planting, too. I frequently emphasize: “Treat your cover crops like your cash crops.” To do this, think and plan strategically. Follow your cash crop harvester with your drill or planter as closely as possible — even if you’re chopping corn silage in August!

Cash-in with these timeliness tips
One day of cover crop growth in September is as valuable as at least a week of October growth. Here are five ways to get it done.

1. Plan to start earlier. Just as cash crop seeds are ordered weeks or months in advance, a cover crop plan needs to be thought through to get the seeds you want. Astute farmers will strategically set up to get a jump on cover crop planting by using shorter-season cash crops. Done on 10% or so of your acres, this might allow you to get cover crops planted up to three weeks sooner.

2. Order that seed early. As the summer rolls on, finalize your plan with your cover crop seed dealer. Laying out your expectations of what you want to accomplish with cover crops will help identify the best species to meet your desired goals.

Specific cover crop types may be higher priced or in short supply, so substitutions might be needed. Early-order or prepaid discounts can really help make cover crops pay.

If your cash crops are maturing faster than usual, make sure your seeds are picked up or delivered on time. Remember, an early-maturing cash crop may trigger cover crop seed shortages in your area. That’s another reason to pre-order.

Sometimes, the season is later and may merit switching species. If you’re uncertain that you can even plant a cover crop due to delayed harvest, contact your seed salesman. There may be a use for that seed elsewhere. Having a good working relationship with that person is as important as it is with your cash crop seed dealer.

3. Prep your planters. Most farmers have their planters ready to go weeks before spring planting. Exercise that same preparedness for your late-summer/early-fall cover crop planting, too.

Readying a drill doesn’t really take a lot of work. But more farmers are using their precision planters to seed cover crops. Since these planters have better seed-to-soil contact, this may lower your seeding costs.

It’s also an opportunity to get more use out of a planter that may be used only 10 to 15 days during spring. Some aftermarket companies now offer seed discs accommodating many cover crop species and mixes, even on vacuum-style meters. That makes using these planters even more appealing.

4. Line up your tractor driver. Finding available manpower to run a planter tractor behind the combine can be challenging. Sometimes, there’s a retired neighbor farmer who would enjoy some tractor work or a promising young lad whose time has come to get behind the wheel.

5. Follow the harvester. Farmers who plant double-crop soybeans following the combine during small-grain harvest know that the urgency pays dividends. That same urgency also pays cover crop dividends. How close you run behind the harvester depends on how well prepared you are. The reward is well worth the reaping.

The coach’s closer
Treat your cover crops like cash crops. Every day holds potential payback. Make September days count at least sevenfold.

Groff, who farms on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is a cover crop pioneer and innovator. Check out his website,

TAGS: Management
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