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The 2023 season made the case for terminating earlier in a dry spring.

Tom J. Bechman, Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer

March 13, 2024

3 Min Read
Soybean plants sprouting through cover crops
SLOW START: These soybeans planted into cover crops in plots near Lafayette, Ind., in 2023 got a slow start. Agronomist John Pike says when managing cover crops, you must assess weather conditions and be prepared to adjust. Tom J. Bechman

“Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” The late Kenny Rogers made those lines from his song “The Gambler” famous. An old gambler is giving advice to a fellow passenger on a train.

It is good advice if you’re planting into cover crops and deciding when to terminate them. Even those who plant green say there are times when it pays to terminate earlier. For many, the 2023 planting season was one of those times.

“We conduct strip trials with soybeans planted into cover crops and no cover crops, and normally terminate cereal rye at anthesis stage, when it is tall,” explains John Pike, a farmer, independent agronomist and certified crop adviser in Marion, Ill. “We’ve achieved consistent stands in the past in these trials in both no cover crop and cover crop strips. However, we didn’t see the same results in 2023.”

Differences in 2023

Pike notes that on his farm in southern Illinois, it had been very dry since August 2022, and became even drier after planting in 2023. His fields didn’t receive rain for at least three weeks.

“In 2023, soybeans emerged well, and the stand was consistent where there was no cover crop, but emergence was uneven and delayed where the cover crop was not terminated until anthesis,” he says. “The difference was striking.

“We normally get rain about every week after planting, but not last year. As a result, cereal rye, which grew until planting, sucked out moisture, and when young soybeans emerged, there wasn’t enough moisture. In most springs, allowing rye to suck out moisture is good, because it is usually too wet. We saw the opposite in 2023.”

Takeaway message

Pike observed a significant yield hit for soybeans where cereal rye was terminated at planting. Fortunately, in the same field, cover crop seeded at the same time and rate as that in the plot was terminated in early April.

“Those soybeans yielded 7 bushels better than the control with no cover crop,” he says. “In 2023, performance hinged on how you managed the cover crop and when you terminated it.”

Pike believes people who walk away from cover crops after one bad experience, like last year, saying, “Cover crops don’t work,” draw the wrong conclusion.

“It’s not that cover crops didn’t work; it’s that they need to be managed differently in varying weather environments,” he explains. “Where they were terminated early, we saw a positive return on investment.”

It’s difficult to predict weather trends in advance, but Pike believes part of management is doing the best job possible of assessing weather conditions.

“You look back and look forward and make your best guess as to what weather and soil conditions may be like,” he says. “You have a plan when you go into the year. But if you get another year like 2023, you must be willing to adapt. Pull the trigger and terminate the cover crop early. That is all part of managing cover crops. It’s not just about having cover crops as part of the management system; it’s also about how you manage them.”

About the Author(s)

Tom J. Bechman

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Tom J. Bechman is editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer. He joined Farm Progress in 1981 as a field editor, first writing stories to help farmers adjust to a difficult harvest after a tough weather year. His goal today is the same — writing stories that help farmers adjust to a changing environment in a profitable manner.

Bechman knows about Indiana agriculture because he grew up on a small dairy farm and worked with young farmers as a vocational agriculture teacher and FFA advisor before joining Farm Progress. He works closely with Purdue University specialists, Indiana Farm Bureau and commodity groups to cover cutting-edge issues affecting farmers. He specializes in writing crop stories with a focus on obtaining the highest and most economical yields possible.

Tom and his wife, Carla, have four children: Allison, Ashley, Daniel and Kayla, plus eight grandchildren. They raise produce for the food pantry and house 4-H animals for the grandkids on their small acreage near Franklin, Ind.

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