Farm Progress

Salute Soil Health: 7 things you need to know to get ready for cover crop seeding

Tom Bechman 1, Editor, Indiana Prairie Farm

July 8, 2016

5 Min Read

The talk among weed control specialists in June was about the many calls they fielded about problems burning down annual ryegrass this spring. Many of the calls were from people who hadn’t experienced burning down ryegrass before.

Shannon Zezula and other personnel at the Natural Resources Conservation Service say they hope people who had such an experience won’t let it stop them from trying cover crops again.

Zezula and other NRCS staff members created this Salute Soil Health column to provide information that can help people avoid such situations. The entire Indiana Conservation Partnership contributes information for this project.  

Here are seven things you can do now to prepare properly for cover crops for the 2016-17 season.

1. Maintain your resource concerns with cover crops.

With all the information out there about cover crops, it can be easy to get confused about what species to plant and what mix to use. One solution is to make those decisions based on addressing a resource concern, Zezula says.

Always have a primary purpose in mind. If you farm land subject to erosion and your resource concern is protecting the soil surface, you probably would use a cover crop mix with a grass species. While using oats in your mix will give you some protection, they normally don’t live through winter. For the highest erosion protection, you would want to include annual ryegrass, cereal rye or triticale in your mix.

If you don’t want to seed the entire field to a cover crop, keep some wheat or cereal rye in a drill and seed the areas that tend to erode over the winter. Just that strip of green growing all winter will protect those sensitive areas. By considering resource concerns, you can develop a prescription cover crop mix that will provide the benefits you’re seeking.

2. Make sure you have the right seed.

Even though you will not be getting a cash return on your cover crop, it’s important to pay attention to seed quality, Zezula says. Different seed varieties have different characteristics. This is especially true with annual ryegrass. Don’t buy just any annual ryegrass. Do your research and choose a variety that works well as a cover crop in your part of the state. Don’t buy any "Variety Not Stated" annual ryegrass.

3. Learn about seeding rates.

How you seed your cover crop greatly impacts how much seed you need. You need one rate if you fly on aerially, a different rate if you use a drill and another rate if you use a precision planter, Zezula says. NRCS has a cover crop rate calculator that can determine how much seed you need to plant. This tool also determines how much seed of each species is needed in a mix.  Stop by your local NRCS office and ask them to use the calculator to come up with the best plan for your farm.

4. Consider harvest residue.

Proper residue management on crop fields is an important factor during harvest. You may think it’s too early to start thinking about the soil and ground condition of next year’s planting season, but it’s never too early, Zezula emphasizes. As combine headers have increasingly gotten wider, upgrading to a different spreader may be required.

It’s important that residue is spread equally over the field. Residue left after harvest plays an important role in proper germination and nutrient distribution on your crop fields. Evenly distributing residue is especially important to producers who practice no-till since they only have one chance for proper distribution. It is essential to take the time to monitor the amount of residue being spread, making sure it’s even and at your desired thickness.

5. Think about getting started soon.

When is the best time to start improving your soil health? It’s now! The best way to start is to include cover crops after this year’s crop harvest. But don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start with a field or two currently in corn that you’ll likely harvest first. After harvest, drill winter cereal rye at 46 pounds per acre between mid-August and early November — the earlier the better.

Contact your local NRCS office for additional information about managing your cereal rye next spring and other cover crops to include in 2017 and beyond. If you have other fields that are similar but won't be planted with cover crops, you'll now have a good comparison for how valuable cover crops can be, Zezula observes.

6. Make the most of cover crop mixes.

One key principle to building soil health is to improve biodiversity. This is primarily aimed at the diversity of soil organisms underfoot, but managed through the diversity of plants aboveground, Zezula explains. If you're experienced with simple cover crop mixes, it may be time to include some more diverse mixes into your soil health journey. Maximizing your diversity and your investment takes careful planning.

It’s important to plant mixes on a date that works for each species in the mix — this can really narrow your planting date window. The best time is most likely after early-harvested crops such as wheat or silage, or even on prevented planting fields.

You could also seed various species at multiple times of the year. For example, an early July planting would allow a mix of sorghum-sudangrass, buckwheat, crimson clover and cowpeas. Many of these will be dormant by fall or winter, so another seeding in mid-August of winter cereal rye and brassicas such as rape, turnip or radish will provide additional diversity and resource protection. Contact your local NRCS office for advice on species, seeding dates, rates and management recommendations for mixes.

7. Look at prevented planting acres as an opportunity.

Planting conditions were extremely variable across Indiana this year, and if you're one of the unfortunate individuals faced with prevented planting acres, consider improving soil health by planting a cover crop. Cover crops can protect your prevented planting fields from erosion, improve your soil organic matter, retain and cycle your nutrients, and reduce compaction layers. August is a perfect time to plant many cover crop species such as cereal rye, rape, turnips, radishes, spring oats and crimson clover. Always coordinate your decisions with your crop insurance provider and other program agents to ensure compatibility with program requirements, Zezula concludes.

About the Author(s)

Tom Bechman 1

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farm

Tom Bechman is an important cog in the Farm Progress machinery. In addition to serving as editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer, Tom is nationally known for his coverage of Midwest agronomy, conservation, no-till farming, farm management, farm safety, high-tech farming and personal property tax relief. His byline appears monthly in many of the 18 state and regional farm magazines published by Farm Progress.

"I consider it my responsibility and opportunity as a farm magazine editor to supply useful information that will help today's farm families survive and thrive," the veteran editor says.

Tom graduated from Whiteland (Ind.) High School, earned his B.S. in animal science and agricultural education from Purdue University in 1975 and an M.S. in dairy nutrition two years later. He first joined the magazine as a field editor in 1981 after four years as a vocational agriculture teacher.

Tom enjoys interacting with farm families, university specialists and industry leaders, gathering and sifting through loads of information available in agriculture today. "Whenever I find a new idea or a new thought that could either improve someone's life or their income, I consider it a personal challenge to discover how to present it in the most useful form, " he says.

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