Cover crops aren’t just for corn and soybean fields anymore. Both no-till and cover crops are getting a hard look from various specialty crop growers.
The Indiana Conservation Partnership put a team together to assemble information on this and other topics. The team is led by Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel, including Don Donovan, Brian Musser and Clint Harrison, district conservationists; Susannah Hinds, grazing specialist; Scot Haley, resource soil scientist; Kris Vance, public affairs specialist; Victor Shelton, state agronomist and grazing specialist; Tony Bailey, state conservation agronomist; and Shannon Zezula, state resource conservationist.
Cover crop use is skyrocketing in typical Indiana corn and soybean rotations, Zezula notes. But there is also increasing use of cover crops in Indiana’s specialty crops.
Donovan says many specialty crops raised in Indiana are high-nitrogen, low-carbon plants. Once they decay, they leave very little residue on the surface to build organic matter and protect the soil over the winter. Seeding a high-carbon cover crop such as cereal rye helps protect the soil surface and balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio. High-carbon cover crops also help build soil organic matter.
Some producers who raise pumpkins are using cover crops and no-till. By no-tilling pumpkins into cereal rye terminated with a roller-crimper, they are protecting the soil from heavy rainfall events. The cereal rye mat keeps the pumpkins off the soil, producing a cleaner fruit.
Pumpkins use up to 150 nitrogen units per acre, Donovan notes. Cereal rye can scavenge available nitrogen that may otherwise be lost over the winter from the past crop. It slowly makes it available to the next year’s crop.
Farmers using no-till with cover crops also find that their soil structure improves, Donovan says. This enables harvesting equipment to stay on top and keeps rutting in wet soil conditions to a minimum.
Fungus is a major concern in specialty crops. Donovan says some producers believe brassicas, such as rapeseed, may act as a natural soil biofumigant. Mixing them with cereal rye may provide further natural reduction in fungal issues.
Cover crops provide many diverse benefits in any kind of cropping system, including Indiana’s specialty crops, Donovan summarizes. The best way to determine if cover crops will help your farm is to try some small strip trials. See what happens when you include cover crops in your production system.