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Serving: IL
tractor and roller harrow in cereal rye field
PREPARING: A roller harrow rips through a cereal rye field in Coles County, Ill., in preparation for corn planting.

How to make most of prevented plant acres

Raise your soil health and some forage at the same time with cover crops.

Prevented plant acres don’t have to sit vacant this growing season.

While grazing and harvesting for forage have limitations under federally backed prevented planting insurance claims, farmers can seed cover and forage crops whenever it works for them — they just can’t harvest the crops until a date specified by insurance providers in November.

“Harvest just depends on when your local area will let you in there,” says Eric Belcher of Center Seeds. “I’d suggest talking with your insurance professional to make sure doing something like this is going to work for you as a first step.”

Center Seeds and other cover crop retailers offer mixes and individual species, from summer annuals such as sorghum and millet to winter annuals such as triticale, winter wheat and cereal rye. Belcher says summer annual seed supplies are being hit with higher-than-usual demand due to a hay shortage in northern Illinois and other regions caused by poor alfalfa growth through the winter and spring.

“Everybody and their brother are looking for some kind of forage — specifically some of the sorghums, sudangrasses, millets, oats and what have you. So, some of these crops that we’ve been using for a number of years in the summer and fall, they’re starting to become short,” Belcher says, adding that farmers can lock in seed sales before species sell out.

Matthew Boucher of Potential Ag in Dwight, Ill., says for his area in northern Illinois, they target the end of July and early August for planting cover and forage crops. He says a popular mix for new cover-croppers includes radishes and oats, though adding an overwintering crop such as cereal rye to the mix will help tie up nutrients in the field after the radishes and oats are either harvested or killed by frost.

“Radishes and oats have got good grazing and forage value,” Belcher says. “The radishes have good subsoil, great root structure. Oats are more of a shallow root structure; the earthworms love those. Without an overwintering crop, though, there’s potential nutrient leaching before spring.”

tractor and roller harrow in cereal rye field
COVERED: Cereal rye overwinters and helps to tie up nutrients on fields that would otherwise sit empty this season.

Belcher adds that his goal with cover crops is to prevent erosion and nutrient loss, so to him, the earlier a mix is planted, the better. He also recommends that a mix includes both summer and winter annuals.

Managing cover crops by mowing during the growing season might be advised to keep some species in the vegetative stage and avoid seeding.

History repeats

Steve Murty, Vita Plus forage products specialist, remembers 2013 as a year that also had a surge of prevented planting claims.

“We were able to utilize some of the fertility that was already out there, and then harvested it late enough in the season where folks weren’t harming or jeopardizing any of their prevented planting acre payments,” Murty says.

“As guys start taking their winter rye or triticale off for feed, they’re going to recognize they’re a little short of the tonnage they’ve been used to in the past, so that’s going to put pressure on trying to secure other options,” he adds.

Dennis Haugen, a North Dakota farmer, says that in 2011, he had thousands of acres claimed under prevented planting. As he was still learning about cover-cropping back then, he didn’t seed the acres with overwintering grasses, but did plant radishes and turnips.

“Thinking back on 2011, we weren’t able to get our cover crops in and planted until mid-late-July,” Haugen says. “But we got just an awesome stand of radish and turnip; it was thick and lush, and it died out over the winter. Going into that ground the next year planting corn, it was just amazing.”

Haugen views 2019 as a “rescue mission,” and says farmers in Illinois unaccustomed to large prevented planting years should be mindful of soil compaction with the wet conditions.

“We don’t want to be out there doing all kinds of tillage, because it’s just going to contribute to compaction when you’re this wet. If you’ve got to do weed control, spray it, maybe a little vertical tillage, but just be mindful of your compaction,” Haugen concludes.

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