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Cover crops do more than keep the soil covered

Cover crops do more than keep the soil covered
Zero in on cover crops that bring in nitrogen or add other benefits.

One person in the crowd at a recent field day made it very clear to those around him who would listen that he thought cover crops were a waste of money. He lives and farms on mostly flat, mostly dark soils. He says he has no erosion problems, so he doesn't need to keep soils covered during the winter.

Related: Indiana's Barry Fisher tapped to be Regional Soil Health Manager

Let's ignore pictures shown at a different field day of brown snow on flat land from wind erosion during the winter and assume he has a point. He doesn't need cover crops for erosion control, at least from water.

Cover crops can run $20 to $40 an acre including seeding costs. Can you get that benefit back?

Look for nodules: Note the nodules in the roots of the Austrian winter pea Barry Fisher holds in his hand. This cover crop can add nitrogen, and is sometimes added to a mix for that reason.

"There are many benefits from cover crops," says Barry Fisher, agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and newly appointed Midwest regional manager of the NRCS Soil Health Division. Saving soil is only one of them, he adds.

"We are hearing from lots of farmers who say they're seeing improved soil health over time from cover crops," Fisher adds. You will get deeper rooting than from row crops, depending upon which cover crops you select. You can also get help on weed control from a cover crop like rye when you plant soybeans after it. Many farmers insist they see far less marestail and have fewer weed control problems in soybeans after rye."

That's not all. "There are also cover crops that can add nitrogen back into the soil that can be there for row crops once it is available," he says. "You need to select cover crops based on what you want to accomplish with them."

Related: Cover crops take off, but not everybody signs on

Many start out with a single or two-way mix of cover crops. Some of the more advanced growers are now using nine- and even 12-way mixes. They are more expensive, but growers are trying to accomplish certain goals.

"One cover crop you might consider if you want to grow nitrogen is Austrian winter pea," Fisher says. "You can find nodules on the roots where nitrogen is produced."

Maybe the farmer from the field day and Fisher could square off in a debate. One person who heard me joke about the idea said it would be more like a "cage match!"

Thinking about a cover crop? Start with developing a plan. Download the FREE Cover Crops: Best Management Practices report today, and get the information you need to tailor a cover crop program to your needs.

TAGS: Soybeans
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