Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind., has worked with cover crops in no-till for 20 years. When Purdue University Extension held a field day at his farm, he offered this 10-point checklist to help someone ready to try cover crops with no-till:
1. Adopt a positive mindset. It starts here, Starkey says. “If you don’t believe you can make it work, it won’t work!” he says.
2. Be open to change. “I see new things every year and try things that I think will fit my operation,” Starkey says. “If you are not open to change, it will be tougher to make these things work.”
3. Learn from your mistakes. “You’re going to make mistakes,” he adds. “Understand what went wrong, and keep that in mind next time around.”
4. Start off slow. “I started into cover crops 20 years ago with 20 acres,” Starkey says. “Now we’re 100% no-till and cover crops.” However, Starkey cringes when someone calls him in the spring and says he just put his whole farm into cereal rye cover crop, and now isn’t sure how to terminate it. Start with a few acres, prove to yourself you can make it work, and build from there, he says.
5. Talk to your peers. People who are using these practices are the best ones to learn from, he says. Most people in no-till and cover crop systems are willing to share tips because they want to see the system grow. Starkey advises attending meetings where you know veteran no-tillers will be present and take advantage of what you can learn in round-table discussions.
6. Fix drainage before you start. This step is so important that perhaps it should be No. 1 on the list, Starkey says. He is installing pattern tile now in some fields that have been in the system for a long time but weren’t pattern-tiled. “It’s like starting over, because you have to level out where tile lines were installed,” he says. “But especially as you get more residue and we get more extreme weather events, it’s critical to have a good, working tile system in a no-till and cover crop operation.”
7. Own a sprayer. Spraying when you need to spray can be the difference between a successful year and dealing with a headache, Starkey says. It’s an even bigger deal in a system where you plant green and terminate cover crops because how and when you spray can be critical.
8. Apply nitrogen with the planter. Cover crop systems will tie up nitrogen for a portion of the season, Starkey says. That’s simply a fact. Corn needs considerable nitrogen early in the season, when it’s making important decisions about how big an ear to form. By applying N off the planter, you can feed corn well early until you apply more or N becomes available from the soil later.
9. Be patient. Don’t pull the trigger on spraying to terminate a cover crop or on planting on the first day of the season until conditions are right, he says. Also be patient when it comes to planting cover crops in the fall.
10. Diversify your mixes. Know why you are including each species in a mix, and only include it if it makes sense. Grass species tend to scavenge for nitrogen, and brassicas and legumes are usually nitrogen producers.