I have yet to meet a farmer who says, “I’m interested in losing all the topsoil in my field and decrease my organic matter so my family can no longer farm.” Typically, the beginning of my conversations with farmers take place with the intentions to keep farming for multiple generations; or what I like to call legacy farming. Return on investment is a huge deal this year more than ever. So how do we implement cover crops into our operations effectively on a tight budget? How do we successfully start legacy farming?
Don’t be overwhelmed. Everyone starts with a learning curve. In fact, the learning curve is still being built by the cover crop industry!
Step 1: Identify a goal: You need a way to measure the success of your cover crops in the spring.
This is how I start the conversation with farmers who are interested in “trying” cover crops for the first time. Instead of “trying” and never having a unit of measurement, it is important to establish that goal when deciding which cover crop mix you are going to apply on that particular field. Some goals include: compaction reduction, erosion control, sequestering nutrients, producing nitrogen, suppressing weeds, providing a forage, increase soil moisture capacity, provide pest control, increase soil structure, building organic matter, add a habitat for wildlife and essential pollinators, and create financial value on your farm. Treat every field differently. You wouldn’t plant your whole farm to one soybean variety or one corn hybrid. No two fields are alike. Many of them will have the same goals in mind, but we could implement different species and application methods to achieve ultimate success.
Step 2: Timing: When are you going to plant your cover crops? When are you going to terminate this field in the spring?
Understand how many weeks we need before the first frost for each species of cover crops. We need to make sure they have time to grow and meet their full potential. GDD are just as important with cover crops as they are with corn and other cash crops. For example: we are nearing the point where many cover croppers understand that radishes planted in middle to late September aren’t going to be as impactful as they could have been if they were planted 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost. Radishes are great for reducing compaction, sequestering nutrients, providing some erosion control, attracting earthworms and other beneficials, and shading out winter annual weeds in the spring. The radishes that are planted in July and are the size of toddlers are doing just as much good as the radishes that are the size of a pencil. It might not appear so above ground, but go put a shovel in the soil and see what your radishes are doing below ground.
Timeliness of spring termination is a big deal. For example: unless it is a part of your crop plan, I don’t recommend putting cereal rye in your low ground that is notoriously your last field to manage because you can never get in there to spray or plant in a wet spring. #Plant17 taught us that cereal rye on every acre is not always a good move. Planting corn into 4- to 6-foot-tall cereal rye makes for an interesting corn crop. Yield is still to be determined. The one thing everyone who planted corn and/or soybeans into tall cereal rye this year said was that they had one less chemical pass because their rye shaded out their winter annual weeds. They got to experience how powerful weed suppression with cover crops can be. On that wet ground, consider planting your oats and radishes with an early aerial application. We eliminate the challenge of getting them planted before the anticipated frost date and we don’t have to worry about them in the spring because they winter-kill.
Step 3: Before you plant your cover crops, know what kills them.
Spraying herbicides that you’ve applied for decades is one thing, but going back to the label and remembering how those herbicides work is how we achieve termination the first time through the field. That might require waiting a few extra days to get those temperatures to 55 degrees or to stop spraying “earlier” in the afternoon compared to what you’ve done in years past. It might require taking the time to check the pH in your water or ensuring you aren’t making a witch’s brew that deactivates modes of action in your herbicide mixes.
The same goes for herbicide residual. It is hard to get seed to grow if there is leftover herbicide in the field from your late June or early July application that is smoking the seed. A bioassay test is a great tool to avoid a major disaster of investing in cover crop seed and never seeing them grow.
Step 4: GO DIG!
It’s so easy to see the top growth of what your cover crops are doing. The real magic is happening below ground though. I know shovels might be a novel item on some farms. Feel free to get one of those diesel-powered shovels and dig a real man’s hole to see how far down those roots really are growing.
If sequestering nutrients and/or producing nitrogen are some of your goals, send in a biomass sample to see how your fields performed!
I’ve heard that cover crops are a trend. I’ve heard farmers are trying to figure out how to use cover crops as a sustainable practice because it’s only a matter of time before the government implements them on every farm. But the longtime users of cover crops are doing it for different reasons. They have measured their success with cover crops and have see the value with their cover crop mixes. They see their farms thriving not only now, but the potential their fields have for the future generations.