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Benefits help with economics of cover crops

Grower recommends simplicity when it comes to investing in cover crops.

Forrest Laws

August 29, 2019

How do you pay for cover crops? That’s a common question when farmers are debating whether to plant cover crops in front of corn, cotton, soybeans or even rice in the case of Ryan Sullivan.

Sullivan, a partner in Florenden Farms near Blytheville, Ark., said it helps to start simple. Sullivan planted a mixture of ryegrass and barley in the fall of 2018 and allowed it to grow until he planted rice last spring. That was by design.

“My plan was to plant into it green, but it stayed so wet that by the time we got in here to plant on May 25, the rye had already naturally died off,” said Sullivan. “We just came in behind the planter and finished it off.”

Ryan Sullivan and his father, Mike Sullivan, were speakers and hosts for the Mississippi County Rice Irrigation Field Day, an annual event that draws between 300 and 400 farmers and industry representatives. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas also participate.

“The residue you see here was about how high it was when we planted,” he said, standing in a soybean field that served as one of the stops for the field day. “It was still green when we planted the soybeans.”

One of Sullivan’s concerns about terminating the cover crop too early is that he sprays, kills the ryegrass and barley; it falls to the ground; and forms a thick, wet mat that “won’t ever dry up if you continue to get rains.

“The reason I wanted to plant into it green was to let that cover crop be a sponge to soak up the excess moisture in the wet conditions we had this year,” he noted. “Normally, we would have planted in April and the cover crop wouldn’t have been as tall.”

The cover crop seed he planted last fall cost between $12 and $14 an acre. “Even if you don’t look at herbicide savings or irrigation savings, this field had an air drill trip,” he said. “Right after the combine, an air drill went across. The next trip after that was the planter.

“If I was going to do this the way we’ve been doing row rice, I would have run the Kelly Diamond reduced tillage harrow once, but sometimes in this hybrid rice we have to run it twice to lay the straw down. That drill basically replaced the trip of the Kelly Diamond. After the Kelly we would have burned. We might have planted no-till, but most of the time we’re running a hipper to refresh the beds.”

The cover crop mixture of ryegrass and barley was “just as cheap as what I could find that could survive in these gumbo soils. You can blend eight or 10 or 15 together and have a big, fancy cover crop. We’re just trying to see what’s economical and what’s feasible.”

About the Author(s)

Forrest Laws

Forrest Laws spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.

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