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Serving: WI

Cover Crops Enhance Soil Health, Fertility

Cover Crops Enhance Soil Health, Fertility
Only 10% of corn growers plant cover crops, survey shows.

Farmers looking to boost soil health and fertility and reduce input costs may want to consider planting cover crops. The 160 producers and interested individuals attending an Extension Cover Crops Field Day held at Arlington last month learned that cover crops provide growers a number of benefits.

According to Matt Ruark, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Soil Science assistant professor and Extension specialist, there are short term as well as long-term benefits to growing cover crops. Short-term benefits include:
•Increased  yield
•Purchasing less nitrogen and other inputs.

PROVIDING COVER: This is corn no-till planted into red clover residue.

Long-term benefits, according to Ruark, include:
•Improvement in soil condition which leads to an increase in yield
•More soil resilience to weather extremes.

"Cover crops improve soil biology by preventing soil erosion and protecting carbon and nitrogen input," Ruark said.

Francisco Arriaga, who is a soil and water management specialist with the UW-Madison Department of Soil Sceince and Extension, said he looks at cover crops as a management tool.

"Cover crops provide ground cover at a time when the soil is bare," Arriaga noted. He said cover crops provide:
•Erosion control
•Reduced soil crusting
•Increased water infiltration
•Minimized nutrient loss
•Soil and water quality improvement

While cover crops have a lot of benefits, only about 10% of farmers who plant corn and about 10% of all crop producers grow cover crops, according to Virginia Moore, an ag and applied economics master's degree candidate at UW-Madison. Moore cited information from a USDA survey of producers as well as a survey she sent to Wisconsin vegetable producers.

WEED CONTROL: Red clover can be clipped to control weeds, remove diseased tissue and manage lush growth. The clover on the left was clipped with a stalk chopper in mid-October while the clover on the right is unclipped.

Thinking About A Cover Crop? Start With Developing A Plan
Taking time to design your cover crop plan will increase the successful establishment of the crop and potentially allow for improved staggering of fall harvest.

Those most likely to grow cover crops are organic vegetable growers, Moore said. Her survey showed in 2013 that 75% of organic vegetable growers use cover crops at least part of the season.

Even though cover crops have been around for decades, most of the survey respondents began using cover crops between 2008 and 2011.

In the USDA survey, Moore said the vast majority of respondents used no-till or reduced tillage.

"Only 10% used conventional tillage," she said.

What to plant?
According to Moore, most farmers are planting winter cereal grains for cover crops.

"The most popular are rye, wheat and red clover," she said.

Jim Stute, research director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy and former Rock County Extension crops and soils agent, said he uses red clover on his Walworth County farm and frost seeds it in mid- to late-March.

"I get really good infiltration of rain water," Stute told the field day attendees. "This system works well for me and I intend to continue using it."

Stute has been no-tilling his land for 20 years and planting cover crops. He believes crop producers who don't plant cover crops are missing out.
"If you plant winter wheat, you have an opportunity to 'grow' your own nitrogen to help manage input costs and accrue soil quality benefits," he explained. "The age-old practice of green manuring, especially in wheat, can produce significant creditable nitrogen for corn the next year. It also protects the soil and may be eligible for cost share under local and federal conservation programs."

According to Stute, multi-year research in Wisconsin has demonstrated that red clover is the most productive and reliable legume choice for interseeding into winter wheat in early spring.

"Interseeded red clover captures the entire growing season which helps maximize nitrogen credits," he said. "Seeding clover or other forage legumes after wheat harvest is more risky due to the potential for dry conditions and a shorter growing season. Red clover offers the additional advantage of being a non-host for soybean cyst nematode, a problem with many of the other legume cover crop options."

How much nitrogen?
Current Extension recommendations suggest that unharvested red clover can supply between 50 pounds and 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre to a following nitrogen-demanding crop such as corn, Stute said.

Thinking About A Cover Crop? Start With Developing A Plan
Taking time to design your cover crop plan will increase the successful establishment of the crop and potentially allow for improved staggering of fall harvest.

"These nitrogen credits are based on plant biomass production," he explained. "Higher biomass production will result in higher nitrogen credits and the need for less nitrogen fertilizer."

Wisconsin data suggest that about 70% of whole-plant nitrogen will become available in the first year following clover.

"Properly managed," Stute said, "interseeded red clover will not reduce wheat yield or interfere with harvest, but will capture 90 days of sunlight which is normally wasted. Nitrogen and carbon will be fixed and added to the soil after the clover is killed and plants decompose."

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