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See just how deep cover crop roots can go

Don’t sell cover crops short on their rooting power, even when they’re young.

Tom J. Bechman, Midwest Crops Editor

October 9, 2023

2 Min Read
hand points to roots about 4 feet deep in a soil sample core
ROOT BONANZA: NRCS soil scientist Dena Anderson points to roots about 4 feet deep in the soil profile core she pulled from this cover crop demo plot. Plants were still small, but roots were deep. Photos by Tom J. Bechman

Are you concerned cover crops aren’t very tall yet? Perhaps you think you won’t get the benefits many people promote, such as soil loosening and nutrient recycling. Surely you need bigger plants to get the deep-rooting action that cover crops are known for around the Midwest.

Roger Wenning, Greensburg, Ind., says, “Hold on — wait a minute.” He is convinced that even month-old cover crop plants can root deep.

How deep? He asked Dena Anderson, soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to bring her probe truck along when she came to his field day in August. She pulled the truck into the middle of his cover crop plot and went to work. Soon, she was laying out a 4-foot-deep core and slicing it open to see what was inside.

woman stands next to truck with a hydraulic probe for pulling soil sample cores

Root power

There were two notable things inside, Anderson notes. First, there were plant roots, even at 4 feet deep. In fact, she added an extension on the probe and found roots at 5 feet. Roots were coming from small, young cover crop plants of various types that Wenning seeded in mid-July, just for the field day.

It’s not unusual to find cover crop roots that deep, Anderson says, even in relatively young plantings. She has found cover crop roots at similar depths using her probe truck at other locations.

Hans Kok, a soil conservation consultant, says roots at deep depths weren’t the only find from probing. He discovered a slice of soil from the tube well below the surface that contained obvious earthworm holes.

“When you can find evidence of worm activity that deep, you know that you have belowground livestock helping improve soil health,” he says.

two hands holding a chunk of soil

The field where Wenning seeded a variety of cover crops for demonstration purposes has not been plowed in a long time, he notes. Today, Wenning and his son, Nick, are avid no-tillers, planting green into standing cover in some fields.

The root demonstration was just another reason why Wenning does not worry if cover crop plants start out small — especially if it is cereal rye, a crop he knows can survive the winter and flourish the next spring, even if planted late.

“There are going to be deep roots, and we are after that rooting action,” he says.

About the Author(s)

Tom J. Bechman

Midwest Crops Editor, Farm Progress

Tom J. Bechman became the Midwest Crops editor at Farm Progress in 2024 after serving as editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer for 23 years. 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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