WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — Farmers took time out of spring planting preparations March 26 to attend the Western Pa. No-Till Conference in West Middlesex, Pa. However, longtime attendees said a lot has changed during the 16 years of the conference. It is no longer solely about the benefits of no-till, but about the use of cover crops in farming operations.
Cover crop king
Keynote speaker Dave Brandt, a Carroll, Ohio, farmer has been farming for 40 years, and emphasized the importance of cover crops in a crop rotation on any farm.
He said many producers feel or say they can’t afford the price of cover crops, but Brandt said farmers cannot afford not to use them in the rotation.
Brandt talked about improving the soil health with a biological primer — that’s where cover crops in come into the mix. He farms more than 1,000 acres and his goal is to reduce the commercial fertilizer he uses on his fields.
He said that many of his Fairfield County fields have clay soils but he can develop good cover and tilth over time.
Brandt said he uses a great deal of hairy vetch in his fields. He sows 12 pounds per acre. He also gave details on his use of Austrian winter peas and plants 30 pounds per acre after the wheat harvest.
Cover crop creativity
He gave some creative examples about his use of cover crops. For example, he plants sunflowers and pearl millet in some fields, and his wife goes out and picks both of them and sells them bundled together at a local farmers market, which produces income, plus the end result is less commercial fertilizer on the fields.
He also suggested that many fields can be used for pasture for livestock with movable fence when a mix of cover crops are planted.
Brandt gave some tips on cover crop management. He said the diversity in the cover crops planted can be key especially if they have different root systems because it will mean nutrients at various levels of the soil.
Some of his suggestions included cowpea, pear millet, and sunflowers because they can bring zinc up to the surface and will attract songbirds, wild birds and bees, which will help with pollination.
He also suggested that a roller be used to run down cover crops either before planting the cash crop or after the planter.
Brandt urged the producers in attendance to know their fixed costs when it comes to corn and soybeans because it will aid in determining what cover crops are needed for the land and how the cover crops can affect the bottom line.
He said cover crops improve the soil health by mimicking nature. It is also essential that producers keep a keen eye on the details. He said it’s not enough to manage the land, it’s the details that counts.
Brandt also said it’s important for producers to make sure the residue and chaff left after a wheat harvest is spread out so that it can decompose and crops can get through it when they are planted.
Charlie White, a professor with Penn State University, talked about cover crops and the management of nitrogen in the soil.
He said many farms in Pennsylvania are having good luck with the planting of buckwheat. He said producers plant the seed 30 days before corn at 20 pounds to the acre and it helps to increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil.
“Cover crops used for the nitrogen management give the same year results,” said White.
Legumes vs. grasses
He stressed that legumes may be the way to go for some producers, because the legumes take nitrogen from the soil and the atmosphere while grasses only take nitrogen from the soil.
White said his studies show that cover crop mixtures are the way to manage nitrogen.
“Cover crop mixtures should be tailored to meet the needs and constraints of each farming system,” said White.
He said if you want to retain nitrogen, then use grasses in the mix. If producers are looking to supply nitrogen to the next crop, then legumes should be planted.
If a farmers is looking to retain and supply nitrogen then use both in the cover crop mixture.
White stressed that mixtures need to be tailored to the specific farm goals and the constraints the operations may possess.