Increased interest in cover crops, along with the desire to control weeds on prevented planting acres, led many growers to plant a temporary cover on acres they couldn’t plant to a cash crop. Many growers have limited or no experience in the use of covers in their production system. If this refers to you, you did the right thing by planting cover crops — but now what do you need to be concerned about?
If your cover crop mix included mostly summer annual plants such as millet, sorghum-sudangrass, buckwheat or sunflower, these plants will winterkill after the first killing frost. There shouldn’t be any survival of a summer annual species into the spring. Residue from the dead cover crop will decay over the winter, provide some protection of the soil surface and be very easy to plant into come spring. It’s highly encouraged to refrain from tilling the residue this fall. That will eliminate much of the benefit from planting cover crops in the first place.
Species such as buckwheat can reach maturity before a killing frost and produce viable seed that can germinate again this growing season, or possibly overwinter and germinate in the spring. These “volunteer” plants will be easy to clean up with an early burndown herbicide application. However, be aware of what species are in your mix. Know their characteristics and if they can carry over from one growing season to the next.
There may be some options to use your cover crop for forage. Before making any decision concerning the use of cover crops as a forage, check with your crop insurance agent and get the final details on what you may or may not be able to do. Double-check with your agent before you sell forage instead of using it on your own farm.
Some summer annual crops such as sorghum-sudangrass aren’t suitable for normal hay production but are suitable to be made into silage. A quick check with a local forage expert, the Purdue University Extension Service, or your local soil and water conservation district or Natural Resources Conservation Service office will ensure you get full value from using your cover for forage.
Dig and look
Possibly the most important thing after using cover crops on prevented planting acres is to do some on-farm research. Grab a spade and start digging this fall to check the condition of your soil. If you did not plant every acre to a cover, compare the acres planted to a cover to the acres not planted. Can you tell a difference in the soil structure?
One year of cover crops can begin the change in the soil that will start you on a soil health journey. Is there less weed pressure where cover crops were used? If this is the first time you have used cover crops, don’t let it be the last. Start using some cover crops in your normal production system. Begin with a small number of acres, use species you are comfortable with, find local successful cover crop farmers who can mentor you and provide valuable information, and make your journey a fruitful one!
Donovan is a district conservationist with the NRCS. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.