WOOSTER, Ohio — With rain showers setting in every other day the first few weeks of May, farmers have been prepping equipment and rolling tractors out of the barn just to quickly cover it all up again. The wet spring not only delayed the planting season, but it also had some farmers worried about their cover crops getting out of control.
“The biggest issue is ryegrass and cereal rye, which just happen to be the most common cover crops farmers use,” said Bill Curran, professor of weed science at Penn State University. “It always seems to go from manageable — a foot or so tall — to headed out in a week.”
Some areas are experiencing ryegrass anywhere from knee and waist height to more than 5 feet high in some places in central Pennsylvania. “I have a research student who is 5 foot 4 inches tall and it is well over her head,” said Curran, about a Penn State research field.
But there is a light at the end of tunnel. Many researches and cover crop specialists agree, producers should not panic, “it is all still very manageable.” The important thing is to have a strategy in place to deal with the crop as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
While it seems that most of Ohio and Pennsylvania are running a bit behind on planting this year, “we are not at critical stage yet,” said Rory Lewandowski, Ohio State Extension educator in Wayne County.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Crop Progress Report, released May 16, showed Ohio corn at 34 percent planted as of May 15, down from 71 percent that time last year; and soybeans at 10 percent planted down from 39 percent last year. Pennsylvania corn is at 52 percent as of May 15, down from 64 percent last year, and no soybeans were reported.
And with warmer, dryer temperatures already closing out the week, producers are going to be anxious to get everything going. From hay harvest, to planting and cover crop termination, “everything is really ready to happen now,” said Lewandowski.
“I realize a lot of producers are going to feel rushed once things dry out,” said Mark Smith, NRCS State Resource Conservationist. “But some of the fields with actively growing cover crops will dry out ahead of ground without cover crops.”
Smith says, spray as close to planting as possible to prevent the cover crop from forming a dense mat which would prevent the soil from drying out properly.
Planting into cover crops
“I have talked with farmers who have mixed feelings about planting into cover crops,” said Lewandowski. He said a farmer in Carroll County, Ohio, told Lewandowski he has always planted in ryegrass and never had an issue, while others say it can be a bit of a challenge.
“I’ve planted in rye that is waist high before,” said Bill Haddad, also known as “no-till Bill.”
Haddad has used cover crops on his own farm in Knox County, Ohio, for many years and works as a PGR specialist and agronomist for Valent USA on a contract basis. He says, the key to planting in tall ryegrasses and other cover crops is to “make sure you are putting the seed where it should be.” A good no-till planter will place the seeds to the desired depth, said Haddad. This allows farmers to still do a cover crop kill without affecting the seed.
“We have been getting a few calls from some (farmers) that are relatively new to using cover crops that have some concerns,” said Allen Dean, owner of Dean Farms Cover Crop Sales and Service in Williams County, Ohio. “Planting soybeans into tall cereal rye has never been a problem.”
He added, farmers can spray within a day or two after the field has been planted.
“There’s also a lot of interest in planting corn in green cereal rye. I do know some guys that are doing it well,” said Dean.
Mike Rupp, a dairy farmer in Wayne County, Ohio, said he is not sure how it will go, but he plans to plant soybeans directly into his cereal rye cover crop this year. “Our plan was to spray and then plant, but now we just plan to plant,” said Rupp.
Rupp has been experimenting with cover crops for the past five years. His main reason for getting into cover crops was to provide extra forage for his expanding herd. “We went from milking around 250 head to over 300 head without much planning,” said Rupp. “We needed the extra feed.”
Since then, he has continued to try out various mixes of ryegrasses, triticale and clover mixes.
“Termination of cover crops for both soybeans and corn at this late stage in the game should be done as soon as possible,” said Haddad.
Growers planning a burndown using Roundup or 2,4 D herbicides should follow the label and leave an appropriate amount of time between spraying and planting. “Some growers like to terminate a cover crop as late as possible and if that is the case they can apply 2,4 D plus a reduced rate of a residual,” said Haddad.
The remaining residual and any other combination of herbicides can be used prior to crop emergence.
“Work closely with your agronomist to make sure you are adapting your herbicide program and scouting for pest,” said Smith.
New to cover crops
Charles Wildman, owner of Standing Oaks Enterprises in Clark County, Ohio, is relatively new to the cover crop scene. Wildman feeds out around 25,000 hogs, which means there is a lot of manure to be spread over 1,000 acres that will produce some of the feed he needs to feed his livestock.
“We started using cover crops to mop up those nutrients and hold that soil in place,” said Wildman.
Sticking mostly with ryegrass, Wildman planted some of his field with the cover crop and killed it off in early spring to plant corn. What Wildman didn’t plan for, living in southwest Ohio, was a mid-May freeze. “We typically don’t talk about frost down here on the 15th of May,” said Wildman.
He noticed his corn planted in the ryegrass experienced some frost damage while corn he had planted conventionally seemed to be fine. After posting his discovery on Facebook, he received a lot of comments back that the cover crop actually did what it was supposed to do, and that is maintain the soil temperature below it.
Benefits to letting it grow
“Letting the cover crop grow as long as possible prior to termination is desirable to increase the amount of organic mass and to provide good surface cover during the growing period,” said Haddad.
On another positive note, “we have had a growing cover crop in all this rainfall that is absorbing the extra moisture,” said Curran. So, fields with cover crops on them will dry out much quicker than those without.
The verdict is still out
“My experience with cover crops is, I am very new at it and still discovering stuff,” said Wildman. “It’s not as easy as planting conventional, but I think there is going to be some advantages.”
From a social point — in a world where producers have to be more conscious about how their operation looks to the uneducated eye — spraying manure on a green field of cover crops looks better than dry land where the brown liquid is just laying there.
“The jury is still out in my mind on the economics,” said Wildman. “I decided I’m just going to let this (ryegrass) go and I will plant into it. To date, (May 19) it is three inches tall and I got a decent stand.” Wildman does believe there is merit in cover crop usage for nutrient management and erosion control.
“I’m hoping people are not too discouraged and wanting to give up on cover crops,” said Curran.
“The reason many producers planted cover crops will still exist next year, so we need to learn from this year and move forward,” said Smith.
A safety reminder
After talking with farmers about a potentially shortened planting window, Lewandowski said a farmer told him “well I guess we have 24 hours in a day. I don’t need to sleep.”
Lewandowski cautions farmers of having this attitude. “You still need your rest. When you get tired that’s when mistakes are made and accidents happen.”
“We still have time to have good yields and get seeds planted,” he added.
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