Start planning now for cover crops

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A couple weeks ago, I fielded a phone call from a farmer first thing in the morning. This wasn’t surprising, as it had rained the day before and the wet conditions had put a stop to the flurry of planting activity taking place in our area.

Cover crops

He had questions about cover crops, mainly the best methods to seed them in his fields. We spoke for a few minutes and he talked about something that I have heard surprisingly often during my time as a district technician: Last year he had missed the deadline to sign up for a program that provided cost assistance to plant cover crops.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t aware of the program, he had just gotten busy on the farm and it fell to the bottom of the list. This is completely understandable, especially springs like last year where everything comes at once.

Priorities

Planting crops, making hay, hauling manure all of these things take priority and rightfully so. They are the things that need to be done in a timely manner to get the best possible results. His story at least had a happy ending; he was still able to get into the program and get assistance, but his options for how to seed the cover were limited.

Obviously this particular farmer learned from last season and contacted us early with questions that he had regarding the program when his field work was put on hold. This is the kind of forward thinking that makes it so much easier to achieve a farm’s management goals.

Seeding covers

Back to his original question. There are generally two ways to seed covers — in the soil and on top of the soil.
This is accomplished through a variety of ways. Getting seed into the soil involves using either a drill, planter, or tillage tool with an attached seeder.

The upside to this method is that it will usually result in a quality stand; the downside is that it has to wait until the crop is taken off and that can potentially turn into fighting wet fall weather.

Seeding on top of the soil can be done with a spinner, high boy, or an airplane. Advantages to this method are the cover can be seeded into a standing crop and, especially with an airplane, the seed will get there no matter how wet the ground.

The downside to this method is that the stand may not be quite as good as if it was drilled or planted. These tradeoffs are all things that a producer needs to consider when thinking about cover crops.

Management styles

Different seeding methods certainly lend themselves to different management styles and different crops. If a farmer wants to plant cover after wheat or corn silage, or if the cover is to be harvested for livestock feed, the drill, planter, tillage tool method shines.

These crops (especially wheat) are harvested early enough to allow a lot of good growing days for a cover to get out of the ground and take off. The more accurate placement and better seed-to-soil contact is also desirable for those using elevated seeding rates intending to graze or harvest to cover for forage.

We have an operation here in Coshocton County using an air seeder mounted on a vertical tillage tool to seed cereal rye after corn harvested for grain. They are managing residue and seeding a cover crop all in one pass, however this operation needs to be done as soon as possible after the corn is harvested to give the cereal rye ample time to sprout before cold weather arrives.

Broadcast seeding

For crops like soybeans and corn harvested for grain, broadcast seeding into the standing crop is what fits into most operations. We have had great success using the airplane, seeding oats and cereal rye into standing soybeans and corn. The biggest upside to this is that the seed will get into the field no matter what condition the ground is in. This really shines for erosion control, especially with the cereal rye.

The airplane method is also very efficient; we were able to seed approximately 2,400 acres in nine hours last September.

Another method for seeding into a standing crop is using a high boy to blow seed between the rows. This method allows for very good seed-to-soil contact because the drop hoses on the boom generally get below the canopy and put the seed where it needs to be.

We are planning to seed some acres with this method in the Muskingum River Watershed area this year; if you live in this area and have an interest, contact your local SWCD.

Operation goals

It’s really up to the farmer to decide what species of cover and method of seeding to use. Much of this decision will depend on a certain operation’s management style, as well as the goals that the operation wants to accomplish. But the most important part of the whole process is to make a plan and stick to it. Just by making the decision “this field needs cover and I will do everything in my power to get it seeded” is a giant step in the right direction. Also, if a plan is already laid out ahead of time, it will be easier to follow through with when the time comes.

As my conversation with the forward-thinking farmer winded down. he said one more thing that I thought was interesting. He said now that he had this information, he would have a lot of tractor time to think about what he wanted to do. This really hit home with me — not only was he planning what he wanted to do with covers early, he was going to think about how he wanted to get them on his fields as he planted this year’s cash crops.

Commitment

Obviously he is committed to conservation and doing what is best for his land. By the time he backs the planter into the shed for another season, he should be able to come into our office and tell us exactly what he wants to do. I would put my money on him being a couple weeks before the deadline this time.

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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 wife Morgan and their dog Buck.

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