Use cover crops to protect, improve soil

One of the most important crops is the one not to harvest, but to protect and improve the soil.

Cover crops can enhance soil biology, improve organic matter content and may reduce the need for commercial fertilizer and pesticides, according to Bob Broz, University of Missouri Extension water quality specialist.

“Grown between cash-crop cycles, these crops act as a physical barrier between rainfall and the soil surface, preventing soil breakdown and lessening soil erosion by reducing the rate of water draining off fields,” Broz says. “The crop itself can form a barrier to prevent or retard weed growth and provide nutrients for the cash crop to be planted. Another benefit of cover crops is soil pores created by the roots, which allow for higher infiltration of water.”

By slowing or lessening the flow of water from planted fields, cover crops reduce pesticide and nutrient runoff into surrounding bodies of water.

“As the costs of fertilizer and herbicides continue to increase, the benefits of using cover crops in a sustainable farming system will become more attractive to modern farmers and producers,” he notes.

Cover choices

Selection of a cover crop depends on possible planting dates and farm goals. Legume cover crops such as hairy vetch fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants and microorganisms can use.

Non-legume species, including cereal rye and wheat, recycle existing soil nitrogen and other nutrients and can reduce leaching losses. In many cases, a combination of two or more types of cover crops may be beneficial for quick establishment and improved nutrient utilization.

Weather and timing are important for good cover crop establishment. Understanding the benefits of cover crops and how to manage them is as important as understanding your main cash crop, Broz says.

For more information, contact your local MU Extension center.

Thomas is an information specialist for MU Cooperative Media Group.

Farmers deliver record corn crop

U.S. corn farmers brought in a record amount of corn in 2009, according to USDA, despite a harvest season that left thousands of acres of corn around the country still unharvested. USDA estimated a crop of 13.2 billion bushels, with a record yield of 165.2 bushels per acre.

“While we are extremely proud of the achievements of growers in terms of production and yield improvements, we are not surprised,” says Darrin Ihnen, president, National Corn Growers Association and a farmer in Hurley, S.D. “Even in difficult conditions, our growers combine the most modern technology available with a strong and determined work ethic to produce a crop that meets all needs for food, feed, fuel and fiber. What remains to be seen is the full impact of the millions of bushels that farmers could not yet harvest.”

U.S. corn growers produced this record crop using fewer acres. In 2009, USDA estimates 86.6 million acres were used for corn production, versus the 93.5 million acres used to produce the previous record crop in 2007.

In its World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, the USDA estimates a total corn supply of 14.8 billion bushels, with 5.6 billion bushels being used for feed, 4.2 billion for ethanol and coproducts, and 1.3 billion for other domestic uses. The U.S. will export 2.1 billion bushels of corn, with a carryout of 1.8 billion bushels in free stocks at the end of the marketing year. Average farm price is estimated at $3.70 per bushel, the second year of a drop in average corn prices.

Corn stored in all positions on Dec. 1, 2009 totaled 10.9 billion bushels.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.