For some farmers, cover crops are almost an afterthought, something to fill space in different seasons. But in many ways, planting the right cover is a critical part of the year. Get it right and you improve the yearly yield. Get it wrong and you’ll have an army of weeds to tear out.
“Although farmers have been using cover crops for centuries, today’s producers are part of a generation that has little experience with them,” stated a 2014 report from Purdue University’s Crop Diagnostic Research Center. “As they rediscover the role cover crops can play, many find they lack the experience and information to take advantage of all the potential benefits. That can lead to costly mistakes.”
With flooding and trade wars already compounding farm expenses, many Midwestern farmers can’t afford to make those mistakes. But what are the best cover crop options, especially for prevent plant areas? Let’s take a look.
Use Cover Crops to Recover Flooded Fields
First off, what do I mean by cover crops? Aren’t all crops the same? Well, not exactly. Cover crops aren’t meant to be harvested and sold. Their goal is to stop erosion, cut down on weeds, improve water quality, and enrich the soil’s characteristics, as the Midwest Cover Crops Council explains.
Cover crops are especially important for Midwest farmers this year, as flooding kept many fields from being planted on time. Now it’s time for a choice: either plant late or use your prevented planting insurance coverage for the year.
But even if you go with that second option, it’s never a good idea to leave an empty field. As I mentioned earlier this year, heavy rain can cause erosion on bare ground – damage that’s not quickly or easily fixed. Also, multiple reports found a link between empty fields and decreased yield the following year.
In 1998, for example, a report from Dupont Pioneer found a 12 bushel decrease in corn yield when the field was empty before planting. A 2016 report from the University of Missouri found similar data, adding that empty fields have less mycorrhizae fungus, which helps provide nutrients for corn and small grains.
“As plants grow out of the phosphorus deficient symptoms, they have remained pale and stunted in the most impacted fields,” Missouri plant scientist Greg Luce wrote in the report.
Basically, unless you plant cover crops, be prepared to lose some of your yield in the next planting season.
Choose Cover Crop Type with Purpose
Now that we understand the why, the question is: what should we plant? For each type of cover crop, it works best in a specific season. Red clover, for example, is best planted in either winter or early spring, while ryegrass and oats can go in in the spring season.
For grain farmers, the Midwest Cover Crops Council offers recipe suggestions, a blend of different varieties. The council also advises all farmers to plant between one to two bushels of oats before September. The reason is that oats help capture nitrogen. Without that cover crop, your field could suffer significant nitrogen losses.
The 2014 report from Purdue University also provides a few ideas. For example, if you have empty space to fill during summer, Purdue officials recommend either millets, Sudangrass, or crimson clover. You can also use buckwheat, if you want a faster growing cover crop. It grows anytime the soil is between 45 degrees and 105 degrees, so it’s perfect for the summer months.
For late summer, Purdue officials suggest you plant annual ryegrass, oats, barley, winter peas or mustard. Fall is the time to plant rye or wheat. There is another, somewhat newer option here as well. Winter camelina (or false flax) is a member of the mustard family, one that needs temperatures of at least 35 degrees to grow.
“[It is] very winter hardy, even in extreme temperatures such as North Dakota and Montana,” the Purdue report says, adding that seedlings can handle temperatures as low as 15 degrees.
Give Cover Crops a Chance
Finally, it’s also important for farmers to know what not to do when it comes to cover crops. MCCC officials advise not to let them grow too long. Most crops will die over the winter months, especially in the deep Midwestern snows, but some will survive. If you let them survive too long, these cover crops can become weeds, stealing water and nutrients from your cash crop. At the latest, it’s a good idea to kill them within the first two weeks of spring.
It’s also important to be patient, in order to reap the benefits of cover crops. There’s a good chance that you won’t see much of an impact for the first growing season after planting cover crops, but officials say to have patience. In fact, it may take two or three seasons before the benefits really become apparent. Don’t give up too quickly.
Prepare for Higher Future Yields
It’s inevitable that cover crops eventually increase cash crop yields in subsequent years. You can use the in-between time wisely by increasing your on-farm grain storage capacity. With unpredictable markets and high yields, it’s a recipe for storage shortages, many of which are already being reported at commercial storage facilities.
The best way to protect your assets is to control the condition of your stored grain. And the best way to do that is with grain temperature monitoring. Temperature control is essential to grain condition. The better your grain storage environment, the longer you’re able to store your grain without spoilage.
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