Treat cover crops the same as cash crops for maximum benefit
JUNEAU – There is no magic recipe for cash crops and the same is true for cover crops,,according to Steve Groff, a cover crop expert from Pennsylvania who conducted some soil health workshops in Wisconsin last week.
Groff is credited with developing the first cover crop roller-crimper in North America and with developing cover crop strategies more than 25 years ago when most farmers had not even thought about the benefits of cover crops.
Speaking to an audience of about 150 farmers and crop consultants in Juneau he advised, “Treat your cover crops the same way you treat your cash crops. They require trial, error and a great deal of attention.”
Gross said, “Think about everything you do to prioritize your cash crops: planted on time, proper seeding equipment, and the consistent observation that you do throughout the growing season.”
He urged farmers to look beyond a one-year plan and think about a long-germ plan.
“Recognize that just as cash crops occasionally do not meet expectations, so also cover crops may not perform to your goals in some years,” he said. “Cover crop management needs to be thought of in the context of a ten-year plan. This is an investment. You are building long-term value into your soil.”
While many crop farmers think in terms of ways to kill weeds and harmful insects, he suggests, “The goal should be to mimic and nurture nature. Look for worms. They work for you at no charge.”
He stressed the importance of getting a cover crop established as early as possible in order to build enough bio-mass.
As for species of cover crop, he says it depends on the goal. Once the goal has been established, consider the planting window that works for the farm and the method of establishing the cover.
Other considerations include setting up the planter to deal properly with a mass of cover in spring and determining how the cover will be terminated.
Like other cash crops, fertility needs to be considered for covers as well.
“For nitrogen-loving cash crops like corn, planted after cover crop grasses like cereal rye, triticale or annual ryegrass, you will need sufficient nitrogen on or very near the seed at planting,” he said. “Legume cover crops can allow lower rates of nitrogen in corn but be cautious in adjusting fertility too quickly.”
Groff pointed out the importance of setting up a management and scouting plan for cover crops just like with cash crops.
Finally, he recommends setting up a termination plan.
“Ask the local chemical rep or farmer who is experienced with terminating cover crops. Annual ryegrass requires special attention,” he says. “What is your Plan B in case the initial termination is not effective the first time?”
Groff described his success with a roller crimper that he designed more than two decades ago but says while it works on rye, it will not terminate other covers. When using a chemical to kill off the cover, timing will be very important.
If tilling living cover crops in spring, he notes the importance of factoring in the clumps of root mass that may not allow the soil to level out and be plantable as expected.
“Although moldboard plowing would eliminate this issue, there needs to be a very compelling reason to employ this soil destructive practice,” he said.
Farmers attending the meeting were there for a variety of reasons. Some have never tried cover crops but just wanted to learn more. Others like Steve Hoekstra wanted to learn more about a practice they have been employing for several years.
Hoekstra says he started using cover crops as a means of holding soil in place.
His family’s farm is located next to Fox Lake and they have employed numerous strategies including building a berm and a grass waterway that holds water back and filters it before letting it slowly move toward the lake.
“We raise a lot of sweet corn and begin harvest in July. We don’t want our ground to be bare so we put in barley and oats to provide a cover,” he said. “We also put in cereal rye on the land right next to the lake but our challenge is how to establish corn on it in spring.That’s why I came to this meeting.”
Hoekstra was also interested in Groff’s advice for establishing a cover crop on land that had been planted in pumpkins.
“When we plant pumpkins into a cover of terminated rye the thick mat keeps the pumpkins cleaner,” he said. “Sixty-percent of the produce and pumpkins we grow go into grocery stores. That means it must not have dirt or mud on them.”
Farmers like John Becker like the idea of cover crops not only to prevent soil erosion but also to provide some additional feed for livestock.
Groff reminds these farmers that when a cover will be used for feed the strategy will be different than when it will simply be terminated and used as weed suppressor and soil builder.
David Roche of Columbus says since they started doing cover crops several years ago they have now set a goal of covering all of their acres. They have upgraded their equipment to accommodate their plan including using an air seeder ahead of a tillage rake.
In the long-term he would like to try planting into green covers, a practice employed by Tony Peirick of Watertown, co-chair of the Healthy Soils group in Dodge County.
The Roches utilize both composted manure and liquid manure on their fields.
Future topics of the Healthy Soils group will include more information and test plots for those who want to establish cover crops but are concerned about how to do so when they have livestock manure to deal with.
Last week’s programs were sponsored by the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water. Groff spoke again on Wednesday evening to members of the Beaver Dam Lake Association and on Thursday he answered specific questions and visited with farmers at the Dale Macheel farm near Randolph.