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Under cover

First-time users wait to see what benefits spring up with cover crops

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 11:59 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 11:57 a.m. CDT
Caption
(CNA photos by JAKE WADDINGHAM)
Only corn stalks remain in a snowy field north of Afton. By adding cover crops to no-till practices, farmers can take another step toward slowing down soil erosion. Other benefits include weed suppression and soil health improvement.

With the ground still frozen and the temperature barely reaching double digits for the past week, preparation for the 2014 spring growing season is still a distant thought.

But waiting dormant under the snow cover is a wide variety of winter-hardy cover crops that farmers hope will aid their cash crop yields this fall.

In 2013, the federal government provided funds to support a cost-share program for farmers who wanted to experiment with cover crops for the first time. It paid a flat rate of $25 an acre and could be applied to 160 acres.

“It was very popular,” said Taylor County Soil and Water Conservation Spokesman Tyler Folkerts. “There was close to $3 million in that pot and all of it was used up in a matter of two weeks.”

Most of the seeds were planted July through September by an aerial seeding method or by drilling into the soil. Some of those seeds — cereal rye, spring peas, hairy vetch and legumes — will be the first sprout this spring.

Expected benefits

As the cover crops start to grow, farmers are hopeful it will act as a weed suppressant by blocking sunlight and acting as a mulch across the field.

“Once the cover crop is established in the fall and comes back in the spring, it can compete against the weeds and keep them from coming in,” Folkerts said.

Another benefit cover crops are expected to provide this spring is additional protection from soil erosion. On the surface it will reduce raindrop impact as well as increase water infiltration through the network of roots beneath the soil.

According to United States Department of Agriculture, studies indicate that 80 percent of nutrient losses occur during the winter and spring transition. Cover crops add organic matter to the soil and take up residual nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

“When the rain comes in the spring, cover crops stop the nutrients from being leeched out,” Folkerts said.

By taking in all that moisture, cover crops may help farmers get into the field faster if it turns out to be a soggy spring.

Termination

Before planting corn or soybeans, the cover crop is terminated. For most cover crop rotations, it is not ideal to let it go to seed.

“Most people will spray with a herbicide, using applications they already use to get ready for the planting season,” Folkerts said.

The cover crop is typically killed two weeks prior to planting, but farmers should check if their USDA program has any specific kill methods or time frames.

Some crops can be terminated organically by mowing or crimping once it reaches a reproductive growth stage.

Ongoing program

While it has not been officially announced, Folkerts and others are hopeful there will be federal dollars available again this year for more cover crop cost-share programs.

Farmers do have the option to continue the program without any aid, but should be weary of the cost compared to the expected benefits.

“You should try to keep your cost at no more than $35 to $40 an acre,” Folkerts said. “It varies if the seeds are flown on or if you drill them in yourself. Seeding costs were about $20 to $30 an acre. Different mixes cost a little more.”

Folkerts said he is hopeful that farmers who were not happy with their stand of cover crops in the fall or see better results during harvest still stick with the program.

“Timing is critical,” Folkerts said. “For example, if you have it flown on before a rain, farmers had awesome stands. It is so dependent on timing and available moisture.”

Cover crops also add revenue possibilities to several other areas of agriculture. Co-ops are starting to sell different mixes and advertising for aerial application is on the rise.

For anyone seeking more information on improving soil health, a workshop is planned at Lenox High School from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. March 18. Presentations will address soil erosion and nutrient reduction strategies.

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