As the 2018 harvest in Indiana wraps up, it will soon be time to reflect on crop yields and start making crop management decisions for 2019. It’s also a great time to see how your fields have held up under spring and summer rains. In many cases, this may be the first time you have been across your fields, especially those planted to corn, since early in the crop year.
That’s how three district conservationists view fall: as an opportunity to do more than just harvest crops and possibly do some tillage. They are Don Donovan, Clint Harrison and Brian Musser. All three work for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. They make observations on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.
What did you learn during harvest? Did the combine bounce over gullies or sedimentation bars that you were not aware of? In extreme cases, did you have to go around severely eroded areas? If your fields were eroding with an actively growing crop, what will the fall and winter seasons of bare soil leave behind for spring planting? What are options for next year to address these issues?
Consider cover crops
Erosion control is just one of the many benefits of using cover crops in your operation. Cover crops protect the soil by providing ground cover and roots to keep soil in place. Cover crops used in a long-term no-till system will improve aggregation of soil particles, thereby improving infiltration. Soil organic matter levels will start to improve, building a more resilient soil that will not be as susceptible to erosion.
A cover crop mix for erosion control should contain a grass species such as oats, cereal rye or annual ryegrass. If you’re concerned with spring erosion, the use of an overwinter species such as cereal rye or annual ryegrass is best if you’re comfortable with termination before planting.
If you’re not ready to plant the entire field to a cover crop, smoothing eroded areas and planting wheat or rye in those areas can make a tremendous difference in erosion control. Make note of areas of concern, and seed these areas for winter.
Farmers experienced in the use of cover crops are trying an innovative tool. Intercropping is planting a cover crop during corn sidedress, between the V3 and V7 growth stages. Planting between these growing stages has minimal effect on yield and still allows for postemergence herbicide applications before the cover crop germinates.
Use cool-season cover crop species that will germinate before the corn crop canopies and then go into dormancy during the heat of the growing season. They start growing again at harvest. There’s even potential to provide nitrogen for corn if legumes such as red clover or crimson clover are planted. Increasing residue cover by reducing tillage is a good starting point. Crimping cover crop residue at planting further armors the surface, but neither crop residue nor cover crop armor are actively living plants. Soils are subject to run off during heavy rains. More information on intercropping can be found on the Penn State Extension website.
If erosion in your fields was an issue this fall, consider using cover crops next year. Start with your fields that seem to erode the most. Cover crops might make for a smoother ride in 2019.