Flint on Crops: Time to Think About Cover Crops – Commentary

    Cereal rye cover crop in corn stubble.

    There is nothing more important on any farm than the quality of the soil. And there seem to be a lot more ways to damage the quality than to improve it. We tend to try and starve a crop out of many fields when things are going great, but then when the good times come we tend to use the extra for something other than returning fertility and productivity to the land.

    The careful use of cover crops is one of the best ways to preserve not only the physical soil itself but also to retain the organic matter and nutrients that are there following each year’s cropping season. The fact is really simple that the soil should not be left bare anytime in winter or summer since the effects of weather can only cause negative rather than positive results.

    This time of year we need to consider the planting of some form of winter cover, and the choices are many. For me however, the cereal grains seem to be the best fit for both our climate and our production systems. My personal choice is wheat as I have said in the past, but cereal rye and oats are also good alternatives.

    Other species may be added to the program as well, these including some of the legumes such as winter peas or vetch. The use of a brassica such as radish is also a possibility although this family of plants is not a host for my favorite soil friends the mycorrhizae.

    The brassicas certainly should not be planted alone, at least in my opinion. Rather they should be included with other plants like wheat that are mycorrhizal hosts for support of the beneficial strains of beneficial fungi that colonize help supply summer crops.

    Of course there are problems with cover crops as some were reminded this past spring. The cover that is so great for other reasons also retains moisture that prevents field work at times following periods of heavy rainfall.

    This underscores the fact that even though we would like to keep the cover later into the spring in order for it to generate more mulch cover it probably should be terminated during some of those good days we normally get in mid to late February.

    Cover cropping may not be as good an idea for fields to be planted to corn as for soybeans, peanuts, or cotton because of the need to plant very early if possible. However when cover crops are a standard practice there is normally adequate fiber and organic activity in the soil to limit most of the detrimental effects of not having the cover for one cycle.

    The benefits of cover crops are well worth repeating. A short list would include the prevention of soil loss, increased water infiltration and retention, conservation of nutrients, and the very important mulch effect on troublesome weed species. There of course many others, but for me these are enough to justify their use.

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    This time of year we may have the opportunity to direct seed winter cover into standing crops prior to harvest. Cotton is a particularly good crop for this kind of seeding program since the cereal grain or mix can be aerially applied prior to defoliation, then when the leaves fall they usually provide sufficient cover for the seed to allow it to germinate and take root.

    The method can also work with other crops like soybeans or peanuts, but a better choice may be to use a drill if time allows in these situations.

    There is a lot more to this story as has been proven by the greatly increased interest in cover crops in recent years. They can also be dual or triple purpose when used for grazing or when the grain price is exceptionally strong the crop can be finished and harvested. It’s really a win, win deal for growers who will recognize the opportunities and manage cover crops correctly.

    Thanks for your time.

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