I recently returned from the Ohio Conservation Partnership Conference, where hundreds of conservationists gathered to network, learn and share information about conservation issues. The breakout session about cover crops was SRO in a large room, jammed full of conservationists who already know quite a bit about this subject, but still hungry for more information.
Cover crops are being promoted for everything from soil health to carbon sequestration. I will go out on a limb here and guess that there are other articles in this issue of Farm and Dairy about cover crops.
I am not going to extol their virtues — you already know them — but offer a few key points to think about as you go into the planting season this year.
Timing is key
The Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District has promoted cover crops as a priority program since 2008. Our board determined that farmers like cover crops, but getting them into the ground at the right time is challenging.
In response to that challenge, we coordinate an aerial application program, and typically seed 6,000-8,000 acres through our cover crop program annually. The aerial program is a great option to get cover crops seeded rapidly and at the right time.
Sign up, and a plane shows up and drops seed into a standing crop. However, aerial application isn’t for everyone, so we continue to look at other methods as well. Last year, through an Ohio State University Warner grant, Holmes SWCD and OSU Extension planted cover crop demo plots as part of the Family Farm Field Day.
As demo plots go, this one didn’t exactly turn out the way we expected — the farmer needed to replant corn on May 29 and the cover was broadcast into the standing crop on July 2. Surprisingly, several of the cover crop species did well, but because the farm is organic, we wonder if field cultivation was behind the success.
We are pursuing another grant to experiment again with early cover crop broadcast seeding into a standing crop on a non-organic farm and more conventional cultural systems. But to do that, determining which herbicides are going to be used on fields intended for cover crops is at the forefront of planning now.
And this holds true for anyone planning cover crops, whether early broadcast, aerially seeded, or drilled later in the season.
Dean Slates, former OSU Extension agent in Holmes County and now a part-time staffer at Holmes SWCD, and Joe Christner, water quality technician, offer these tips from our cover crop experience.
• Cover crops need to be part of your overall crop management plan. They need to be planned ahead, just as you plan how many acres of row crops you will plant, and which nutrients your fields need. If they are an afterthought, odds are they will not get planted. As with anything, plan A might become plan B, depending on the weather and soils, but if you have planned ahead, at least you have options.
• Likewise, take a good look at herbicide label “re-crop” restrictions — how long you must wait before it’s safe to plant another crop — and factor that into your planning. Using Atrazine might take cover crops out of the equation, depending on when you are planning to sow them.
Dean is convinced that some of the cover crop stand problems have been the result of residual pre-emergent herbicides used on the fields. You probably already have your herbicide ordered, but you can still control where it gets applied. You must read the herbicide label to learn the restriction that applies to your herbicide and cover crop plans.
• Along with that, check the herbicide label for grazing and forage harvest restrictions on cover crops seeded after the herbicide is used.
Contact your crop consultant, local OSU Extension agent, or SWCD office if you have questions about herbicide use and cover crops.
Finally, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District is providing approximately $300,000 in cost-share for cover crops through an ODNR Division of Soil and Water Resources cooperative agreement, being administered through SWCD offices.
Producers within the 18-county-Muskingum River watershed are eligible to apply for $13/acre cost share, up to 200 acres maximum per producer. Because the funding is limited, all applications will be ranked using a score sheet that will identify highly erodible sites as priority for cover crop cost-share assistance.
Contact your local SWCD office for more information. The sign up period is open.