The way Mike Werling, Decatur, looks at it, if cover crop growth and rooting helps him stay even on soil health this year, he will be happy. He's expecting to be what he calls a 'maintenance year' for soil health.
Cover crops got a slow start, primarily because many went in late last fall, he notes. Werling is a cooperator and one of 12 hub farms around the state for the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative.
"Growth is slow this spring but I still think we will get some benefit – just maybe not as much as some years," he says.
To find out, Werling took me to one of his fields where he sowed cereal rye last fall. He took along his shovel. The rye was purplish in color, instead of a normal green color.
"I suspect it is short on phosphorus because of the cold weather," Werling says. Young plants tend to take on a purplish color if they are short on phosphorus. Often the problem is not a lack of phosphorus in the soil, but cool weather which prevents roots from taking up as much phosphorus as normal.
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Once temperatures rise, the purple color often goes away. That happens as the plants get access to phosphorus once again through root uptake.
Werling dug up a couple of the 4- to 6-inch, purplish rye plants. Surprisingly, roots were up to 12 inches long, meaning they were running 12 inches or more deep already. Even Werling was surprised.
"That really helps the soil when you get roots going down," he says. "It's nice to see that the roots are going down that far already even though we don't have a lot of top growth.
"I'm confident that the rye will come on. It will take off. Some of the other cover crops may not get as much growth this spring as they usually do."