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tractor in cereal rye cover crop
PLAN AHEAD: If you want to have enough cereal rye for a good cover crop in the spring, you need to start locking in seed the previous spring and early summer.

Treat cover crops like cash crops

Increase cover crop success and make your cropping system more efficient.

By Stephanie McLain

Now is the time to evaluate how your cover crop seeding plan went from late summer into fall. There is plenty of fall left, plus next spring, to evaluate if the goal for your cover crop was met. What you can do now is evaluate your cover crop plan itself. Were you able to implement that plan the way you wanted to so far?

Many cover crop farmers use the phrase, “Treat your cover crop like your cash crop.” Predominantly, this phrase is all about how you plan for and prepare to implement your cover crop program. It includes maximizing the cover crop seeding window, adjusting fertilizer and chemical programs accordingly, being ready for unexpected cover crop opportunities, and planning ahead for potential problems. 

Given the limited availability of cover crop seed this fall, here are a few other items to consider as you treat your cover crop like your cash crop.

Evaluation tips
 Be aware of growing conditions. Have an awareness of how crops are doing in parts of the country where cover crop seed is grown. This year, drought in small-grains-producing areas led to a smaller-than-expected cereal rye, oat and triticale harvest. Some seed is coming on the market from this year’s crop, but supply may continue to be limited next year.

• Lock in cover crop seed early. Although you may not know how the cover crop market is looking in April, spring and early summer are good times to lock in a minimum amount of cover crop seed so you’re prepared. For example, if you always use cereal rye after corn, why wait until harvest to purchase this seed? You wouldn’t wait to purchase corn or soybean seed until you’re driving to the field to plant. The same goes for cover crop seed.

Being a good planner means keeping your eyes open for cover crop opportunities and planning for potential problems. With a base rate of cereal rye already purchased, if the opportunity presents itself, you can add radish or clover, if you have an early fall. Waiting until the last minute to purchase cover crop seed increases the chances that you’ll pay more for seed than if you purchased some earlier in the growing season. You also risk seed not being available.

• Get to know your cover crop seed vendor. This isn’t just someone you call at the last minute to hook you up. Your seed vendor is a valuable resource. Quite often, they’re farmers, too. They understand the market and can keep you informed of limited seed availability or increasing prices. Seed vendors are knowledgeable about potential cover crop substitutes and can help you find another cover crop if your preferred choice isn’t available. For example, a small grain like winter barley can be a good substitute for cereal rye.

If you got to this fall and were surprised by the difficulty you were having purchasing cereal rye or annual ryegrass, use this as a learning experience. Plan ahead next year. Don’t use this as justification to quit planting cover crops. Use it to motivate you to treat your cover crop more like your cash crop.

McLain is a state soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indiana. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

TAGS: Conservation
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