Failure the first time with cover crops shouldn’t be a showstopper


With traditional row crops such as corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton, all are widely grown and widely studied. When it comes to cover crops, we still have a lot to learn, but as one member of Monsanto’s Technology Development Field Sustainability Team points out — if you’re really committed, you’ll find a way to make it work.

“Every farmer can tell you a story about a corn and soybean field that had a great plan and it didn’t work — cover crops are no different,” said Randy McElroy, who also serves as Monsanto’s Technology Development Representative for southern Illinois and as a Soybean Field Advancement Specialist for Kentucky, Illinois, and southern Indiana. “Cover crops are more of a long-term investment in the field, not a cash crop. Keep a good attitude about what you are doing and make it work. We’ve all had failures in cash crops, it’s part of farming and life.”

McElroy gives the example of this year in southern Illinois, where slugs were a real problem in some cover crop fields and no-till fields as well. To combat it, growers had to revisit some management practices from 40 years ago such as scouting fields and remembering not every insect should be a concern.

“Where we know we have an insect that is a known problem in corn and soybeans and it’s identified, in a cover crop then we’ll need to manage for that insect,” McElroy said. “Unless growers are scouting we will miss those. Insect management in cover crops is an area where we have challenges and a lot to learn.”

McElroy’s team doesn’t necessarily specialize in cover crops, but instead spends a lot of time studying cropping systems that encompasses corn and soybean management, tillage or lack of tillage, and how cover crops can be adapted into a corn, soybean, and livestock cropping system.

Before planting cover crops, McElroy says it’s a good idea for the farmer to determine what he or she is trying to accomplish.

“Does he want to manage weeds? Then cereal rye might be a good option. Is the goal an N source for his corn crop? Then selecting a type of legume, hairy vetch, or crimson would be a good choice,” McElroy said. “If nutrient cycling is the focus, then an annual rye grass would be a good option. The growers’ specific goal will influence the type of cover crop.”

McElroy suggest checking out the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) to determine what cover crops fit your area and meet your needs. Lacrosse Seeds is also a good source as well.

Another consideration growers need to make before planting cover crops is latitudinal differences in adaptability and how they will fit the geography. For instance, oil seed radish planted in Wisconsin and Minnesota winter kills. In the south, oil seed radish will overwinter and can be difficult to control.

To get the most out of cover crop season, McElroy suggests these tips:

  1.  Start with one or two fields. Select a field you want to work in with a specific management challenge. For instance, a grower might have highly erodible land and can use cover crops to help with erosion control.
  2. Develop an 18-month plan to manage through all the decisions you will need to make and the different things you will implement over that time frame for a successful cover crop season.
  3. Talk to someone who has been doing cover crops for awhile and who has been successful at it.
  4. Expect the unexpected … with a new cropping system not everything is going to go perfect.
  5. Be more vigilant about spending time in the field after planting to keep up what is going on. Unlike row crops, there are no biotech traits to protect from certain insects and it’s important to be more vigilant with more field scouting than most are accustomed to for regular corn and soybean production.

McElroy’s best tip for planting a cover crop? A seed drill.

“Seeding is dependent on weather in August and September. Like this year in southern Illinois where there are drought conditions, it’s not going to be a good situation to seed with the combine head, it’s better to use a drill to get seed in deep and get enough moisture to sprout,” McElroy said. “If the seed lays on top and maybe you get two-tenths of rain and the seed sprouts, then it dries up and dies. Planting and establishment is highly critical to success, of the cover crop, much like in soybeans and corn.”

Finally McElroy said it’s important to recognize planting cover crops is a long-term change to the farm.

“It may take a few years before we really start to see some of the great things like soil transformation we hope for with cover crops. We can see weed suppression in year one in some fields,” McElroy said. “One of the hardest things to adjust to is not getting immediate satisfaction from the cover crop … cover cropping is a long-term process and the real challenge is waiting for those long term benefits to take affect.”


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