Farmers have planted cover crops for decades, but it's never caught on as a widespread practice. That's beginning to change. And if more large-farm operations adopt the practice, it may change even more.
At least two of the farmers on the 2010 Farm Management tour say cover crops are an important part of their no-till operation. The striking thing is that they both farm central Indiana silt loam soils, some with natural drainage issues.
Both Jack Maloney, Brownsburg, and Mike Starkey, Indianapolis, have worked cover crops and no-till into their mainstream crop production systems. And they're doing it on land not considered as prime for either practice.
Further south, where land is rolling and thought of as a target for cover crops in more traditional terms, the Dubois County Soil and Water Conservation District applied for and received a grant to help cost-share with farmers who wanted to apply cover crops for 2009 and 2010. They have already received the grant for 2011 as well.
In that part of the world, highly sloping soils are ideal targets for a cover growing over winter. But some are picking up on other advantages of cover crops, including helping the soil.
Not all cover crops they are trying are traditional ones, often thought to be winter wheat or rye. Annual rye grass is picking up steam in a number of areas. Cover crop selections for 2010 included crimson clover, winter oats, and oilseed radish.
Through the cost-share program, nearly 900 acres of cover crops were seeded. Some 500 of those acres were flown on aerially. That can be an advantage in getting cover crops seeded before harvest is over, so the cover crops get a better start.
Nothing got a good start last fall, especially in southern Indiana, due to an extended dry period. Still, Judi Brown, the SWCD executive director there, says some farmers had good luck getting stands of oilseed radishes. This forage radish grows roots up to 18 inches deep in the fall, then breaks down over the winter. The idea is for it to release nitrogen available for the soil.
The SWCD arranged for an aerial service to fly on cover crops, departing from the Huntingburg airport. That's a practice they will likely try again.