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Wheat, prevented planting acres open door to cover crop opportunities

cover crop mix held in hands
WIDER WINDOW: Take advantage of the earlier planting opportunity after wheat or on prevented planting acres and include cover crop species that you normally can’t plant in time.
The chance to plant cover crops early expands species selection choices.

Did you raise wheat this year and decide not to plant double-crop beans? Would you like to build some waterways or install some tile in wet spots? Do you want to grow some of the nitrogen you will need for next year’s corn crop? Do you want to diversify your rotation? Do you have fields that did not get planted this spring due to excess moisture? 

Don Donovan, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in west-central Indiana, says late summer is an excellent time to work on conservation measures in land that isn’t in crops. Planting cover crops early is only one option.

You can also build grassed waterways, and in wheat stubble you have plenty of room to spread soil where needed. Grass establishment is usually better when done in the fall. The same goes for putting in tile, since most farmers have little spare time in August. Drier soils mean less smearing of tile trenches; therefore, the tile will start working more quickly. There may be nothing that will provide a better investment on prevented planting acres than tile.

Many farmers say they can’t make money raising wheat. If you figure in long-term opportunities that growing wheat gives you, the bottom line will look a little better, Donovan says. A multiple-species cover crop planted after wheat can produce or keep enough available nitrogen on the farm to improve your nutrient use efficiency. Cover crops like vetch, cowpeas and sunn hemp, along with grass cover crops that accumulate soil nitrogen, can both produce and keep valuable nitrogen for your next corn crop.

Maybe the most important benefit to a multi-species cover crop after wheat is the ability to build organic matter. Donovan explains that research shows that each percent increase in soil organic matter is equal to a half inch to an inch of available soil moisture. 

Prevented planting acres
Some areas received as much as 8 inches in less than a week in May and then were hit again before drying out. Victor Shelton, NRCS grazing specialist, says this made planting conditions extremely variable. 

If you're faced with prevented planting acres, consider improving soil health by planting summer annual cover crops that protect your prevented planting fields from erosion, improve soil organic matter, retain and cycle nutrients, reduce soil compaction layers, and possibly provide some grazing. 

July is still a good time to plant many warm-season annuals such as sorghum sudangrass, millet, buckwheat, crimson clover, cowpeas, hairy vetch or combinations that create good soil-building cover. If it turns dry, millets especially will tolerate moderately dry planting conditions. 

Shelton suggests switching to cereal rye; brassicas such as rape, turnip, and radish; spring oats; and crimson clover in August. He also recommends coordinating your decisions with your crop insurance provider and Farm Service Agency office to ensure compatibility with other program requirements. 

What makes these multi-species mixes possible is that you can include several species that perform better if planted earlier than they can normally be planted in a cropping situation. The head start can result in considerable fall growth for many of these species, providing maximum benefit.

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