By Amanda Kautz
Indiana farmers seed about 1 million acres of cover crops annually, if weather allows. This means cover crops are the third-most-grown crop in Indiana, following corn and soybeans. At the same time, this means just under 9% of our fields are protected with cover crops in the fall!
It’s crucial to our state’s soil productivity and to a farm’s viability that those numbers continue to increase. Let’s take it back to the basics to alleviate some confusion. Following are reminders for both those trying cover crops for the first time and those who have been using cover crops for years.
1. Have a goal in mind when selecting a cover crop. Understand what you’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s erosion control, soil compaction reduction or nutrient retention. Look at each individual field and pick one goal, purpose or resource problem. If you’re a data junkie, look at the data you’ve collected to focus your goal. There’s no one cover crop that can cover every goal you may have in a field. Stay focused on one goal, and work from there.
2. Develop a plan. A cover crop plan is essential. This plan details who, what, where and when; your goal is the why. Make sure this plan is put down on paper. Your plan should have a basic cash crop and cover crop rotation for three years. With a well-thought-out plan, you can be proactive in cover crop seed purchases so you can get seed you want at the price you’re willing to pay. It is essential to have backup plans, because Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. Listen to experienced cover-croppers when they speak; they can tell you what their plan is and their backup plan if conditions aren’t right.
3. Know your planting window and seeding options. Lay out the options available for seeding your cover crop. Do you have a drill for seeding after harvest? Is there an aerial or interseeding applicator nearby? Increase your chances of success by planting as early as possible. Be realistic about your seeding window, and work with species known to germinate when you plan to seed. If your plan is to drill cover crop seed after corn harvest, stick to cereal rye. It’s so late that there will be little success with cover crop mixes or other less cold-tolerant species.
4. Decide your termination strategy. Using winterkill species such as radishes and oats can be a way to ease into cover crops, but ensure they’re planted a few weeks before the first frost so there is growth — and thus benefit. Cereal rye is also a good starter cover crop because it’s easy to kill in the spring and is great before soybeans. If you’re new to cover crops and are feeling antsy about terminating cereal rye or annual ryegrass, be patient! Plants need to be actively growing for successful termination. Also, living cover crop roots suck up moisture and jump-start soil biology in the spring. Wait to terminate until conditions are right to receive the most benefit.
5. Start small, but give your all. On average, try to evaluate about 10% of your total acres. This amount is small enough to not cause major problems but not too small that you discredit the results. An all-in total commitment is essential to success, even if you’re starting with just one field.
6. Build your team. People say it’s essential to have an experienced cover crop mentor to guide you. Go beyond a mentor and build a team. An experienced mentor is an essential part of your team, but don’t forget about your local conservation staff, your spouse and your farming partners. Also, your agronomist and chemical person need to be on this team. If they don’t support your effort, there are other ag professionals out there who will. And most importantly, don’t forget about yourself. Every team has a leader and decision-maker — that’s you! Don’t be passive. Take an active part on your team to learn as much as you can from others.
7. Always strive to learn. Go to field days and ask hard questions. But learning doesn’t stop at field days or conferences. Get out of the truck and observe what’s going on in your own fields. Take a shovel whenever you go outside and look at what’s going on below the surface. Dig holes and look for roots underground. See how your cover crop is growing. Scout for potential weed or pest issues. Look at soil structure; you’ll see a difference in improved structure on cover-cropped fields.
8. Don’t get discouraged. If things don’t go well, re-evaluate what can be done differently. Successful cover crops are about understanding risks and not being afraid to try. If you have a bad year, don’t give up. Every bad year teaches you something! Remember, all crops, including cover crops, aren’t perfect. Imagine if you had given up on growing corn the first year it didn’t go exactly as you planned. This is your new mindset: “Cover crops are part of my cropping system, and I will find a solution.”
9. Be strategic. If you’re new to cover crops, choose one of your worst fields to start with. It will really show you what cover crops can accomplish. Treat cover crops like your cash crop. Seed a slightly earlier-season cash crop for earlier harvest and better cover crop establishment. Be aware of residual herbicides and their carryover potential. This can affect what date you can plant to avoid herbicide injury.
10. Remember, a cover crop is only as good as the cash crop that follows it. Make sure your harvest equipment is properly set up to evenly distribute residue. Also, planter setup is essential. Follow the planter the first spring and check for uniform planting depths, good slot closure and consistent seed spacing. You may have to adjust along the way.
Kautz is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.