October 11, 2016
Ruth Beck, South Dakota State University agronomy field specialist, offers these tips on planting your first cover crop:
• Find an area or situation on your farm that is easily adaptable to cover crops. For instance, cover crops are a natural fit after wheat harvest. So that might be an easy place to start. This way a grower has a chance to learn some things before investing a lot of time and money.
• Decide what the primary goal of a cover crop is — i.e., grazing, soil health, soaking up excess moisture or sequestering nitrogen. The goal of a cover crop is an important consideration.
• Consider a cover crop with four to seven species, not 10 to 12. There are usually more benefits from planting a mix than a single species. However, there are times when a single species works well and is the best solution. For instance, it is common in some areas to seed cereal rye or winter wheat after corn harvest and before soybeans. Rye or wheat can germinate and grow relatively late into the fall (after corn), and the benefit continues into the spring. In this case the rye or wheat cover crop provides carbon and biomass, sequesters nitrogen, uses excess moisture, competes with weeds and can cycle disease. However, it is commonly thought that soil biology would benefit from a more diverse diet.
• Try to keep costs down. What can you use that you have on hand?
• Consider what you want to plant next year on that field. Try to stay away from including that species (or a similar species) in the cover-crop mix, so you don’t bridge diseases and insects to the next cash crop.
• Remember before purchasing and seeding a cover crop to check the herbicide history in the field. You want to make sure all species have a chance to grow.
• When you develop a cover-crop mix, be sure to balance high-carbon crops with low-carbon crops. If the residue in the field is high carbon, you can add more low-carbon species to the cover-crop mix. But if your residue is low carbon, like peas, sunflowers or soybeans, the cover crop should have a higher percentage of high-carbon species. This provides a balanced diet for the soil organisms.
If you are planting cover crops for the first time, Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist, suggests planting what you are comfortable with and what you know you can control with herbicides.
“Things like radish, barley and cereal rye are pretty safe and easy to control. I also recommend considering the rotation. What crop are you going into next? Then, you should talk to other farmers who are using cover crops to get guidance on rates, mixes and experiences. For example, most North Dakota farmers will tell you not to spend money on clovers or warm-season cover-crop species if they are putting them in following a small-grain harvest. There’s not enough time and the conditions aren’t right, making it a waste of money. But planting small-seeded, cool-season species (like radish) along with a winter annual (like cereal rye) is a home run.”
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