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News flash, irrigation could give cover crops a boost

News flash, irrigation could give cover crops a boost
Farmer uses irrigation to get cover crops in standing crop off to good start.

I was interviewing a farmer the other day when he stopped and said he forgot to start his irrigation system.

First, I didn't know why he was irrigating when he was already harvesting corn and soybeans. Second, I figured this would mean a long delay in the interview since he would have to drive down to his farm where the rig was and turn on the irrigation system.

I was mistaken on both counts. Irrigating made perfect sense because it was dry, and he was trying to get his cover crops, seeded a bit more than three weeks, off to a good start. A mix of radishes, oats and annual ryegrass was flown into standing corn.

Related: Kill your cover crop now? Daniel Perkins says 'no way!'

Water gets cover crops started: If Mother Nature doesn't supply water, then it may take irrigation to get cover crops up and going. Since you don't often have irrigation, seeds typically wait to sprout until there is ample moisture.

Second, he simply pulled out his cell phone and pulled up an app. For an annual subscription fee, he has this program which allows him to not only monitor the pivot from a remote location, but to enter details about how much water to apply and where to run, and then to enter "start" so that the system comes to life, even though he is so far away that he can't see it.

Later, he took me to see the cover crops growing in sanding corn. Where the water didn't hit along the edge, there were only a few sprouts here and there. In a few rows where the water hits, a great stand of all three cover crops was already forming a green canopy under the standing corn.

He irrigated to get the cover going and keep it going because he wants to use it for pasture for his cattle later this fall. You would have to do the math to see how many irrigation trips you could afford to make to get a cover crop up and going if you were just using it to improve soil health and prevent soil erosion over winter.

Related: Cover crops are silver lining at epicenter of Indiana flood damage

One point was clear – there was cover where the rain fell on seed and later on plants. Where there wasn't water, there wasn't much of a stand yet.

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