Aerial planting makes cover crops more interesting and practical

By ZACH WALLACE

There have been so many articles on cover crops lately that reading another one is like beating a dead horse. We all know the benefits of adding cover crops to crop rotations and I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence by rehashing that information.

Instead I would like to talk about a challenge many producers in our area face with cover crops, and that is incorporating them into a corn/soybean rotation. Specifically, incorporating a cover crop after soybeans on highly erodible ground and getting enough growth for the cover crop to do the job intended.

Coshocton beauty

I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the most beautiful landscape in the state (in my completely unbiased opinion) while driving to and from appointments in Coshocton County. What makes this landscape so spectacular, in my mind, are the hills.

Jutting up from the valleys in near vertical fashion, the misty ridge tops on a sunny morning take my breath away. But I also notice the cropland on the hills, and I admire the way farmers make their living on the steep slopes.

No-till, contour strips and grass waterways thrive in this area, but even these practices are not enough to prevent gully erosion in some cases. I have personally seen quite a bit of erosion in no-till bean stubble, even on moderate slopes, after this harsh winter and heavy spring rains.

Cover crops are the obvious solution to this problem. However, if a producer drills or broadcasts seed after the beans are harvested there may not be enough time to establish a stand before cold weather sets in.

Some years this might not be a problem, when the weather cooperates and the harvest is on time, but we all know that the weather and field conditions can vary substantially from year to year. This challenge is a harsh reality for many soybean producers in Ohio; luckily there may be a solution.

Aerial application

For the 16 eastern Ohio counties that make up the Muskingum watershed there is a program available through The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, ODNR Division of Soil and Water Resources, and local SWCDs to provide cost-share for aerial application of either oats or cereal rye.

Aerial application can be the answer to getting an established cover crop stand after soybeans, without having to worry about the weather and getting back into the field after harvest. Applying the seed from the air before harvest allows the seed time to germinate and establish itself while the soybeans are drying up.

Ideally when the beans are harvested, there should be a nice blanket of cover over the soil. This program offers a cost share of $13 per acre for each acre of cover crops flown on. The cost-share is limited to a set number of acres per county, and there is an application process to qualify.

Applicants are given a score based on the slope of the field, the current crop, and the proximity to stream, lake, or dry dam. Having recent soil tests, within the last three years will also add to an applicant’s score.

Choosing the seed

As for the choice of seed, oats or cereal rye, that is a personal decision. Oats will germinate and give good growth in the fall, and will die in the winter leaving more residue on the soil to help prevent erosion. A grower will not need to make any special accommodations the next spring as the oats will all be dead.

Cereal rye will also germinate in the fall, but will not put on the growth that oats will. However, rye will overwinter and provide additional growth in the spring.

This will require some extra management, being prepared to kill actively growing rye; however I believe that the benefits of the cereal rye outweigh the cost of extra management. Actively growing cereal rye will tie up nutrients in the soil and suppress weeds by starving and shading them out.

An actively growing root system also gives strength to the soil on highly erodible slopes.

One important item to consider regardless of the seed selected is residual control left from spraying herbicides in the spring. Make sure to check the label to confirm that a cover crop can be safely planted.

For other farmers

For farmers outside of the Muskingum watershed there are potential cost-share options to try cover crops as well. The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers varying cost- share on cover crops through the EQIP program.

I encourage anyone interested in either of these programs to contact the county SWCD or USDA NRCS service center. These folks can give a lot more information about these programs than I can in this article, and they will take applications for aerial seeding as well.

There is a deadline of June 27 to apply for the aerial cover crop program in the Muskingum watershed.

Just remember conserving our soil and water resources is important, and I believe cover crops are important enough to keep talking about. So until everyone knows about the good that cover crops can do — not just for conservation but for the soil — I will continue to beat away on this poor dead horse.

(Zach Wallace is a district technician for Coshocton Soil and Water Conservation District. He  enjoys working on the family farm, hunting, fishing and spending time outdoors with his  fiancée Morgan and their dog Buck.)

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