Coordination of cover crops has benefits

High prices of fuel and fertilizer have pushed us to take a serious look at cover crops for our farm. Cover crops can do a lot of good things, such as helping prevent soil erosion, increase organic matter, fix atmospheric nitrogen, recycle nutrients and provide grazing.

We’re also working with a winter radish, nicknamed “tillage tuber,” because it can help reduce soil compaction.

Of course, the big challenge with cover crops is how to coordinate them into your rotation to get enough growth in the fall, and to get them off in time in the spring to get a crop planted. We have worked with a number of cover-crop blends through the years on our Caldwell County farm, but this year, we are going with winter wheat/tillage radish on 14 acres; winter wheat/turnips on 8 acres; and straight Lone Star annual ryegrass on another 15 acres.

Overall, our goal is to improve soil health. We want to boost the organic matter in our soils, and experts tell us that cover cropping can double the rate of increase in organic matter.

Key Points

• An experiment with cover crops was carried out on the editor’s family farm.

• The benefits include increased organic matter and nutrient recycling.

• Cover crops’ side benefit is winter grazing for stocker cattle.

Grazing boost

We’re also trying to coordinate cover cropping with the need for winter and early spring grazing. We already use some stockpiled fescue, but we would like to have a source of extra good forage nutrition in the off-season to help put pounds on growing calves.

Experts tell us that a good cover crop mix should include 20% to 25% legumes to produce nitrogen; cereals with fibrous root systems that improve soil structure and feed soil microorganisms; and brassica crops, such as turnips and radishes, to cycle nutrients and break compaction layers.”

Grower network

A friend in Pennsylvania, Steve Groff, supplies us with the radish seed through his Cedar Meadow Farm (www.cedarmeadow
farm.com
). Groff is a champion for cover crops, and he grows an amazing variety of them: winter peas, mung beans, cereal rye, sunn hemp and more. His Lancaster County farm is a major supplier of sweet corn to the Philadelphia market, and his cover-crop program has helped him cut fertilizer costs.

Timing is critical

The fall of 2009 was a challenge for cover crops. We were fortunate to get our forage soybeans baled by early September, and we managed to get the wheat/radish and wheat/turnip cover crops sowed by mid-September, dodging rain showers.

We used a mix of 150 pounds of wheat and 3 pounds of radish or turnips per acre. We lightly tilled the soybean crop residue with a rotary harrow, then put on half the wheat with the fertilizer through a PTO cart, and applied the radishes and the other half of the wheat with a broadcast spreader followed by a roller. That’s a little extra work, but it resulted in an excellent stand and quick emergence, which we needed to head off soil erosion when the October rains cut loose.

We broadcasted the ryegrass after a sorghum-sudan crop, which also was tilled with a pass from the rotary harrow.

On-farm test continues

We have a lot to evaluate from our cover crop experiences, but took the first steps by turning stocker cattle on the wheat/radish crop in December. It was so lush, we started calves on bloat-preventative blocks as an insurance policy.

The cool, wet fall didn’t let the cover crop get much growth, but the calves have gotten off to a good start. Stay tuned for follow-up reports.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.