How do I get started with cover crops?
Last week I started the conversation about cover crops and the benefits this practice can have on your farm. Today I want to focus on how a landowner should get started. There is an abundance of information available today on cover crops compared to ten years ago when I was first recommending them to farmers with whom I worked closely. There are many people today well educated in the practical aspects of using cover crops on your farm. My recommendation is to first talk with the farmer renting your farm, then seek out an advisor to help you move forward.
What are your cover crop goals for your farm?
The first thing that every landowner needs to do is determine what your goals are for the cover crop. Make sure and include your farmer-tenant in the planning process. So what are your goals? Are they to prevent erosion? Is it to scavenge nutrients or improve biodiversity? Are you looking to build organic matter or even improve water infiltration? Maybe all the above are important to you, so depending on your goals, this will impact the types of cover crops you will want to use. I will share with you next week some of the more common cover crop species and the benefits as well as a few cautions.
How will you plant the cover crop on your farm?
The next objective would be to create your plan and how you will implement this plan. Planning for cover crop seeding should happen well before you put the first seed in the ground. It must first start with evaluating your herbicide program, if you are using one, to make sure there is to carryover that will interfere with germination and growth. Once you determine if you have the green light to go for it, the next step would be figure out how to seed this cover crop.
There are many ways to seed cover crop from using a no-till drill to aerial seeding. Other options include high clearance sprayers and even the farmer’s combine can be equipped to seed the cover crop. There are several options, and the farmer you are working with can help implement this part of the plan. Think about how you can best get the seed-to-soil contact. This greatly improves the germination of the seed.
What ways can I terminate the cover crop?
The second and very important detail of your plan should be how to terminate the cover crop. This can be a challenge if you or the farmer renting your farmland doesn’t have any experience with it. Like seeding, there are many different ways to kill the plant stand. One very effective way is to use the correct herbicide at the right rate, at the right time, at the right growth stage. This may sound complicated, but surrounding yourself with people who can help guide you is very important. I would be glad to share my experience as well. The other way to terminate the cover crop would be to just plant a mix that dies during the winter months. This is call winter kill. This is great for people who are brand new at doing cover crops.
Another termination practice would be to crimp and roll the cover crop. This is used for cereal grains and leaves a thick mat that can help conserve moisture and surpass weeds. Another effective way to kill the cover crop is to till it into the soil. This is what you call green manure. For many who use no-till practices, this isn’t a viable option but can be very effective for others.
Be prepared when planting the cash crop into a cover crop
The final thought is to make sure your planting equipment is suited for planting into green or even dead cover crop residue. Working with the farmer renting your land to come up with a set-up that work for them and helps to create good seed placement and a quality seed bed is very important. Don’t under equip yourself when it comes to planting. For many annual crops, especially here in the Midwest, you have one good shot to get it planted. So making sure you are ready to go can mean a good start verses a poor stand. Talk to the experienced cover croppers in your area to get ideas on how to be successful. I would love to help you answers these questions as well, just give me a call.