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Adding Protein, Minerals

Last year we used cereal rye and either turnip, crimson clover, rape or hairy vetch for grazing in corn stover. While we noted no major differences in grazing performance, we did note differences in earthworm populations, with cereal rye alone being the lowest and changes in organic matter content, with cereal rye plus rape yielding the greatest increase over 3 years.

I used spring oats and radishes on a field where I intend to frost seed spring canola. My objective is to see if the dead cover crop facilitates the establishment of broadcast spring canola when compared to bare soil. I used a lot of turnip with winter oats, triticale and some cereal rye in another field for weed suppression.

I like turnip in the mix, along with cereal rye and winter oats, and crimson clover for N. This mix is good for grazing and provides a good mix of tap-rooted and fibrous rooted plants to recycle nutrients from lower soil regions and form a mat to reduce soil erosion. The decaying turnips can feed the cereals as they break dormancy in the spring.

In choosing a mix, seed cost, time of planting and growth habits of the cover-crop species all factor in. For grazing in corn stover I want a large volume of green material that has a legume component to add N (protein) to the forage.

I think that turnips in the mix (or swedes, sugarbeets, etc.) add minerals to the feed and may reduce the need to add supplemental minerals. For earlier grazing I like oats and turnips, as they get up fast and the oats are ready to graze before cereal rye is ready. That means we can get fall grazing on the oat mix and save the rye for late fall and early winter grazing, with it going into the spring.  

In our area, the oats and cereal rye are likely to regrow, so they can be grazed again. I like the idea of resting permanent pastures over winter, as I think it allows the pasture grasses to recover and build root structure and root reserves that might carry the pasture into the summer in better condition.

— Todd Higgins, Lincoln University Jefferson City, Mo.

Working With Organic

On my farm I have two trials of cereal rye — one seeded at 100 pounds and another at 150 pounds. The light rate will be worked and farmed organically while the heavy rate will be roller crimped and I'm going to experiment with no-till organic soybeans.

On my dad's farm we seeded a mix of cereal rye, annual rye and radishes. I think we’ll see some organic matter increases, as well as an increase in soil tilth, and I feel like the cereal rye will also help in weed control.

This year, I plan to have a few trials out on my fields and my Dad's. We’re seeding our legume/grass mixes over our wheat. Mine will be red clover, alfalfa, and orchardgrass and Dad's consist of legumes for deep roots and N fixation, as well as grasses for building soil structure with fine, fibrous root systems. As organic producers, all our N needs come from a lush stand of legumes. 

I'm going to interseed crimson clover and orchardgrass into oats in late April, then no-till drill buckwheat into the cover crop stand after the oats are harvested. 

This summer we plan to seed a cover-crop mix in V7 corn. We’re going to mount a 12-volt seeder on the front of the tractor during our last cultivation and work the mix into the soil as we complete our lay-by cultivation. This will include a mix of turnips, wheat, oats, and kale, and possibly spinach. It's intended to be a lush pasture after corn harvest.  

When I decide what species to use in a mix, I first decide what I want to accomplish. If I'm trying to fix N and build soil tilth, I use legumes and grasses. If I want to bust compaction, I use deep-rooted species. For forage, grasses and broadleaves with some legumes is ideal. 

I also look in the shed and see what I already have and don't have to purchase. If I don't have what I'm looking for, then I'll look in a seed catalog. I try to keep mixes between 3-5 species, but I'm excited to try a 15-way mix someday. 

— Will Glazik, Chenoa, Ill.

Cold Weather Success

Even with the shorter growing season here in northern Wisconsin, we have opportunities to utilize cover crops. Many area farmers grow early-harvest crops like winter wheat or corn silage that fit very well with covers. 

In 2015 there was a fair amount of prevented-planting acres in one of the counties that I farm. I seeded 8 pounds crimson clover and 2 pounds medium red clover on July 4 and July 10. The neighbors sure were talking, trying to figure out what I was growing that time of year. My thought was I could grow a good portion of the N needed for winter wheat that was to be planted Sept. 20.

The planting date made a real difference in the amount of residue. The July 4 planting was over knee high, whereas the July 10 seeding was 8-10 inches. 

If I get a chance to repeat this cover seeding, I might leave out medium red clover, as it’s harder to terminate. Following wheat harvest, I intend to seed covers in a mix. One of the mixes that is working well for area farmers is the canola, oats, and turnip.

— Christopher Heckel, Marshfield, WI

Tuning Up Soils

The mixes we use on our farm include annual ryegrass, crimson clover, red clover, cereal rye and wheat. Each field has one or more of these species, specific to the goals we’re looking to achieve.

We always do what we can to be good stewards of the land, so that we can continue to yield efficient harvests for generations to come. Regular maintenance on farm machinery is a general practice, and we’re essentially doing the same for our soils.

We’ll use a lot of the same species this year, but are constantly trying to add new ones. This year we’re adding buckwheat to a rotation before soybeans to help with compaction, P availability and weed pressure.

When selecting a species, we start with seeding date and growing conditions, considering each cover crops' germination temperature, seeding depth, shade tolerance, dormancy behavior, etc.

Then we consider the crop rotation for the cash crop. For example, would we like some N fixation for the following crop, or decreased nematode pressure for soybeans? The more species the better, in most cases.

Cost of seed is also a factor of course, but it's the last thing we review and make changes. Productive results of cover crops depends quite a bit on seeding rates. So to keep our overall costs low we seed most of the cover crops with our existing modified equipment.

— Trent Sanderson, Clare, Ill.

Keeping it Simple

I’ve narrowed my decisions on cover crops to using a mix of 78% annual ryegrass and 12% rape. It gives me two species and they are very synergistic with each other in a lot of ways, including seed sizes. I’m sowing them end of August in both corn and beans.

We went back to 30-inch soybeans to accommodate a Hagie to go through with fenders for basically no damage to soybeans except for ends. It also makes my cover-crop seed purchases simple and relatively inexpensive.

My goal is to get covers growing early to get good height going into winter. Some benefits are obvious like tilth of soil, compaction, erosion control and even yield improvements. Benefits less obvious are building of organic matter, nutrient scavenging, and moisture retention in dry years. 

When choosing mixes I like to keep it simple and use something that will grow easily laying on top of ground. If I get into jam and can't plant early, I will use cereal rye. If I planted wheat I would probably try a 10-way mix. In my area I can't justify the expense of a 10-way mix planted after the first crop is harvested and probably not getting a stand going into winter.

— Steve Longfellow, Ohio

Working the System

For the most part I’m in a corn/soybean and some land is in permanent hay. I use cereal rye, crimson clover and rape seed, seeded into standing soybeans at leaf drop. This ground goes to corn, so I like a legume in the mix.

Corn ground going to soybeans gets annual ryegrass and rapeseed flown on at leaf yellowing.

If I keep some cereal rye for seed, I put in clover, rye, sunflowers, peas, vetch, maybe soybeans, and radishes. Legumes should be used ahead of corn if growing time allows.

Covers give soil structure, prevent erosion, help with water infiltration, lower input costs and increase production and, most important, feed earthworms. No-till, cover crops and worms work together for the good of a no-till system. Covers also limit crop nutrient loss.

— Keith Miller, New Paris, Ind.

Root of the Matter

I use a 10-way mix on my ground. I plan to do the same in 2016. My rationale for my mix is this: I want to increase infiltration so I have many covers with fine roots. I put in several legume species to help feed my cover crops and anything that I might interseed into my corn crop.

I have species that will both overwinter and winterkill. I want those that overwinter to pick up the nutrients from my brassicas. I also chose species for diversity of roots. I need dense, shallow roots to continue to build my organic matter in the soil, and brassicas and deeper-rooted covers to connect my surface hydrology with my subsoil hydrology and sequester nutrients,

If I need a simple mix, I'll use a brassica like rape or kale with cereal rye and Austrian winter peas, or crimson clover.

— Don McClure, Findlay, Ohio

Multiple Uses

Primarily we used rye and radishes, though we’ve put some triticale and barley out. These were a combination goal of building soil, weed suppression, nutrient scavenging, erosion control, compaction alleviation, and grazing.

The triticale and barley could also be hayed or chopped. Oftentimes, we’ll throw turnips into our cover/grazing mixes.
We’ll largely use the same covers this year, although I’m trying to figure a good way to incorporate legumes somehow.

In choosing mixes we look for things that will benefit us in the short-term (weed suppression, nutrient scavenging, grazing/forage), as well as the long term (weed suppression, organic matter/soil structure). As we aren’t the most experienced cover croppers, we try and keep the number of species low and simple. I’m excited to start trying new things, though.

— Jake Bevan, Wichita, Kan.

Timing is Key

Last year I seeded cereal rye, tillage radishes, winter wheat, red clover and ladino clover. One goal was to alleviate compaction and build the soil. I also wanted to sequester nutrients, and some of the fields were for forage for cattle.

I was able to receive forage for my cattle herd and reduce erosion from winter rains. I plan to use the same mixes this year, but may put some annual ryegrass and winter rapeseed in.

My choices on what cover-crop mixes to use depends mainly on when I get to seed my cover crops. I’ve had the best results drilling them after harvest. How soon in the fall I harvest determines what I will seed. If harvest is too late I will use mainly cereal rye. But on some of my winter wheat ground I will frost-seed ladino and red clovers.

— David Wessel, Chandlerville, Ill.

Keeping Water, Nutrients

After wheat we seeded a mix of oats, annual ryegrass, radish, rapeseed and crimson clover. We wanted to scavenge nutrients, sequester water from leaving tile lines, mellow the soil and have nutrients to be released later in growing season for the next corn crop. 

We also flew on a mix of crimson clover, rapeseed, radish and cereal rye to scavenge nutrients, keep the ground covered and release nutrients for following crop. We kept water and nutrients in the wheat-stubble field as documented by tile water flow and nutrient testing.

We plan on using similar covers this year again. We may try other N- producing species but need to be wary of vine-like covers that might wrap around the planter row units.

— Dale Daniels, Wakeman, Ohio

The Best Method

None of the mixes we planned to seed in 2015 got applied because the wet growing season and crop response, which meant trying to seed covers would cause more damage to the cash crop than any expected return.

Our plan is always to seed covers on as many acres as we can. Unfortunately, at this latitude in a corn/soybean rotation our plans don’t always work.

We had enough cover crop seed purchased or grown to do all our acres, but the weather as usual here decides if it is worth putting it out. At the first sign of leaf turn in soybeans we planned to broadcast 45 pounds an acre of farm-raised oats, 1 pound of tillage radish and 2 pounds of hairy vetch.

The continuous rain last season caused the soybeans to grow chest high and develop white mold. What looked like a record crop in late July became a jungle you couldn’t walk through. Soybeans were harvested in October when it had turned extremely dry, so cover-crop germination didn’t seem likely — and the time to killing frost appeared short.

We got winter rye seeded after corn harvest until the ground froze. Some of the early rye germinated quite well. Unless you plan to combine winter rye for seed it doesn’t really matter if it germinates in the fall or spring.  

If we’re still using a spinner spreader to broadcast over-the-top of standing soybeans, the oats/radish/hairy vetch mix, with some turnips for the wildlife in those areas, works if it's not too windy.

We’re going to research our corn-topping concept this year and just applied for a Minnesota Corn Growers Assn. grant to have a field day to demonstrate the concept and other innovative ideas we’re working on. We’re supposed to know soon if the field demonstrations we plan for mid- September get funded.

The machine we want to build will require considerable dollars and work on our part, but if we can get it done, than any mixture — regardless of the different seed densities — should be evenly seeded between the rows. This would let us add any cover-crop species to the mix for both corn and soybean seeding.       

When we started seeding covers we used species we knew, such as red clover, grasses and rape, which were often planted for livestock pastures. Then when we no longer had livestock, so we tried different species like winter rye, tillage radishes, turnips, winter peas, hairy vetch, rye grass and others. Each one has their advantages and drawbacks.

Now, our primary goal is to grow soil. We're looking to balance the carbon-nitrogen (N) ratio from 50:1 down to 25:1. At these levels, with adequate moisture and temperatures, the process can complete and form significant humus.

— Rod and Rick Sommerfield, Mazeppa, Minn.

Meeting Goals

Last year we used a variety of mixes, which included ryegrass, cereal rye, oats, hairy vetch, tillage radish, rape, crimson clover and turnips.

Our primary goal is to increase organic matter and improve water-holding capacity. We furrow irrigate here in southeast Missouri, so eliminating irrigation is our No .1 goal. We also raise several acres of continuous cotton and we rely on cover crops to serve as a weed barrier to eliminate the need for pre-emergence herbicides, and to fight nematodes.

We plan on using the same mixes in 2016. Rye grass is probably the most single beneficial one thing we use, so we try to incorporate it in every mix. A lot of the mixes depend on the crop that we are rotating to the following year.

I think choosing a cover-crop mix depends on your individual goals, and most of all, your geographic location. Using a variety of mixes allows a producer to address a multitude of problems and those vary in different regions across the country. Growers just beginning to work with cover crops should probably start with a one- or two-way mix until they get comfortable with what they’re doing.

— Keith Mayberry, Essex, Mo.

Going Old School

On acres planted to wheat I’ve been using medium red clover frost seeded in the spring. I harvest wheat and the clover is growing all summer, adding tons of organic matter while helping to decompose wheat stubble. I will apply manure to these fields also, and then next year plant corn. For 6 years this has been giving me vary nice corn yields.

On soybeans I use mostly cereal rye planted after harvest. I’ve tried flying on covers and using highboy methods in standing crops with varying degrees of success. Due to a mid-October to early November seeding date, cereal rye is about my only choice. These fields will also go to corn in the spring.

I usually don't put a cover on corn stalks. My thinking is that I start planting soybeans first in the spring. In April, cover crops just haven’t had enough time to grow in the spring yet. This allows me a little more time before I kill the cereal rye and plant corn. This also gives the ground a little more time to warm up (around May 5-10) and the corn pops right out and keeps right on growing.

I plant both crops with one planter. It’s big enough to allow me to plant all my acres in eight working days, as I’m a one-man operation planting 1,000 spring-planted crops.

I have ideas to get early interseeded cover crops into standing corn at N sidedressing time. I’m just trying to get weed control with chemicals that still allow the cover crop to grow — plus still not detract from corn yield.

These methods might seem like old school, but it seems to be the most cost effective and efficient way with the equipment I have to make the economics work in my cropping system.

— Gene Witte, Decatur, Ind.

Alternative View

We’ve moved away from cover crop 'cocktails.' With lower grain prices and inconsistent results we decided to stick with what we’re familiar with and cut out some species that are inconsistent and expensive.

We currently seed 17 pounds of annual ryegrass with a pound of canola into standing soybeans with the upcoming crop being corn. We broadcast 60 pounds of cereal rye into corn stalks following harvest.

Our goal is nutrient capture, weed suppression, keeping the soil cool in the summer by letting the rye act as mulch, preventing erosion, improving soil biology, improving tilth, increasing water infiltration, and suppressing nematodes.

I understand the benefits of big mixes and can see why it is such a popular topic in the ag media today. But I think more people will be interested in how to consistently establish covers for as cheap as possible. People who can get their cost-per-acre as low as possible, while having consistent results, is an important topic right now.

Based upon personal interactions with my peers at roundtables and Extension meetings, people want to know how to do it cheap and $60-per-acre cocktails are impractical to most farmers.

— Adam McCain, Bargersville, Ind.