So, what’s a better cover crop — rye or triticale? What’s an optimum planting date — late August or late September? Could a mixture work best on my farm?
These are some of the questions pondered by a small group of people that came to a cover crop field day at the Penn State Southeast Ag Research and Extension Center just outside of Manheim, Pa.
Jeff Graybill, extension educator in Lancaster County, Pa., and Charlie White, an extension associate at the College of Agricultural Sciences, led the tour, which began at the research center and ended at the nearby Kreider Family Farm.
The plots at the extension center are used to study more “exotic” cover crops from Europe and other areas of the world, which are currently being used by farmers like Steve Groff in southern Lancaster County. But the plots with more locally based crops at the Kreider farm are part of a larger research project encompassing 11 separate sites statewide.
The purpose of this project, according to White, is to study the effectiveness of certain cover crops based on planting dates and location.
“This is the first time that a statewide study has been done to compare these crops around the state,” White says.
The cover crops being used in the project are more typical of the kinds being used by farmers in the area — like rye, wheat and oats, just to name a few.
Planting dates were in late August and late September.
Graybill led the walking tour through two separate plots, which included the same cover crops planted at different times. Results varied depending on the actual cover crop. Some varieties were growing well, while others had little or no establishment.
There were several cover crop mixtures, including ryegrass and crimson clover, which Graybill says has caught the eye of some farmers he's been working with because of its good growth with little or no manure application.
Given the wet weather this fall, he said soil compaction has become a big issue with many farmers asking what if any cover crop can be effective to break up compaction or if a little bit tillage may be necessary.
“Should I chisel that field up next year? Or should I apply a cover crop on it? These are the questions I’ve been getting,” he says.
Those in continuous no-till systems, he said, should probably allow the situation to take care of itself since the idea of a continuous no-till system is to build up the soil and let the natural process of the environment take care of those problems without tillage.
In a tillage system, or for farmers just starting out no-till, Graybill thinks a little chiseling may be necessary because deep compaction can take years to remediate itself.
“We need to keep our soils as productive as possible,” he says.
The Lancaster County plot was the first of the 11 plots White has visited since the plantings were done.
“I’m pretty impressed with them. They look pretty good,” he said of the plots.
After the field day, Graybill and White cut out portions of each plot to test the amount of biomass in the soil.
Anyone can keep track of the progress made at other plots around the state by going to the Web site of the Pennsylvania Cover Crop Network at pacovercrop.ning.com.
The site includes blogs and commentary from across the state, as well as photos from the various sites.