By Stephanie McLain
You made it through harvest 2018. Many farmers said it was the worst harvest they ever recalled. “Worst” is a relative term, and many people are talking about harvesting conditions, not yields. No matter the scale of worst you’re working on, we can all agree that it’s good to have 2018 in the books and behind us, at least for those who did get their crops out of the field.
The 2019 Purdue University Crop Cost and Return Guide already has been released with initial crop budgets. The results indicate that it will be another challenging year. For many farmers, this means cutting variable costs and keeping overhead costs down, as well.
Unfortunately, this means some farmers may look at cutting cover crop costs or not considering planting cover crops for the first time.
Make cover crops pay
Let me suggest that your goal be to make cover crops pay today instead of cutting them. Consider these six concepts:
1. Manage your cover crop costs. There’s a lot to unpack in this simple statement. We saw seed shortages last fall, and this year will likely be the same. Shortages cause seed prices to spike. Timely purchase and good communication with your seed vendor are key.
Also, seek out and compare seed costs from different vendors, but make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Ask for the Pure Live Seed (PLS) seeding rates, which accounts for germination and purity. A cheaper bulk rate may not equate to germinated seeds. If you think a cheap cover crop seed price is too good to be true, it probably is. The lower the germination and purity of a seed, the more you need to plant to get the same benefit as a more expensive mix that has higher germination and purity.
Don’t always assume that a one or two-species mix is cheaper than a four- or five-species mix. For example, a farmer found that a two-species mix of cereal rye and radish cost over $1.20 more per acre than a four-species mix of oats, radish, rapeseed and cereal rye, using each of the last three years’ seed prices.
2. Control herbicide costs. If you’re spending money to establish a cover crop in the fall, evaluate if a fall herbicide is needed. If your cover crop can get established ahead of winter annuals, you may see reduced germination of those weed seeds.
In the spring, consider making that cover crop work for you even more by allowing more biomass to grow. Penn State University research from Bill Curran found that more cover crop growth weakened weed seedlings, and follow-up herbicide applications had a higher likelihood of killing weeds.
3. Avoid cover crop establishment failures. Why would you invest time and money into a cover crop only to find out that your herbicide program negatively impacted the cover crop stand? Check your herbicide labels for potential carryover and grazing restrictions. University of Missouri and Penn State have some great resources available looking at herbicide carryover and the impact to cover crop establishment. These can help guide you in your cover crop selection.
4. Avoid corn yield drag. If you haven’t started applying adequate nitrogen at corn planting, you need to seriously consider updating your nutrient program. When corn is planted into a field with cover crops, the cover crop keeps nitrogen in the field, but it’s tied up in biomass. You don’t have to apply more total nitrogen, just rearrange when it’s going in the field. Apply 50 to 70 pounds of nitrogen per acre at planting, either as a 2-by-2 (or 2-by-2-by-2) placement or dribbled application over the furrow to help get the crop off to a good start.
Realize that when that cover crop decomposes, it will release some nitrogen to your corn crop when it may need it most.
5. Graze cover crops. Nothing boosts return on investment like stacking operations on a single land use. Case in point: Use cover crop biomass for livestock forage. Always follow a plan to ensure you get cover crop benefits to the soil, but grazing is especially useful in late summer when many pastures are stressed, or in early spring when pastures have not started to grow back.
6. Treat your cover crop like your cash crop. Give your cover crop a chance to work and do the job you intended it to do. Have you ever given up on corn or soybeans because of a bad year? Of course not. You did your homework and figured out how to maximize your gains while keeping costs low. Develop the same level of commitment to your cover crops.
McLain is a state soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.