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No-tillers offer cover crop tips

Eventually, bare ground in a farm field will be a rare sight, predicts Steve Groff, a cover crop researcher and no-till farmer from Holtwood, Pa. As farmers become aware of the benefits of using cover crops, more of them are protecting and improving their soil with cover crops, he explains. “The trend is upward, so you’ll probably be doing it one day or another, one decade or another.”

Groff, who spoke at the recent Ohio No-Till Conference, urged farmers to start experimenting with cover crops to learn how different covers fit into their production systems. They will require some management adjustments, he stressed. “You’ll be solving some problems but creating others, all the while benefiting your soils.”

Along with Groff, other farmers, Extension educators and crop consultants shared their experience and advice on raising cover crops during the conference. Here are some highlights:

With today’s soybean varieties, there is less yield disadvantage with shorter-season varieties than in the past. Consider planting shorter-season varieties to allow for more timely planting of a following cover crop, Groff suggested.

After six years of research comparing cropping systems, Ohio State University soil scientist Rafiq Islam is seeing higher microbial biomass and soil organic matter as well as crop yields in rotations with cover crops. Conventional tillage systems are “leaky,” he explained, allowing the loss of soil nutrients. Farmers need to work on developing cropping systems that mimic natural vegetation, creating a “new steady state” that is more sustainable.

Cover crop “cocktail” mixes can perform better than any single-crop variety, according to Groff. A mix gives diversity to the root growth biomass, guards against failure of one species and can reduce seed cost by stretching high-cost seed with lower-cost seed. Some mixtures are also complementary in that plants grow better in the mix than alone.

If you’re not ready to devote an entire field to a cover crop experiment, just try broadcast-seeding a cover crop in your sweet corn patch or garden, advised Ed Winkle of Hymark Consulting.

Farmers sometimes choose cover crop seed based mainly on cost, but they’d never do that with corn or soybean seed, noted Groff. Make sure to consider not only the seed cost, but also the return on investment from nutrient recycling, soil quality improvements and other benefits. Even so, inexpensive options, such as sunflowers, fit well in some situations.

Keck writes from Raymond.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of OHIO FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.