Harvest is starting up in the area, with some high-moisture corn and soybeans taken out this last week. Given that, now is the time to start making plans if you are thinking of trying some cover crops. In fact, some acres have already been seeded in the area by plane or high-clearance machines.
Cover crops have many potential benefits, such as erosion control, weed suppression, building soil health, grazing potential and better nutrient cycling. Because of these benefits, the interest in cover crops is high right now. However, the struggle is fitting them into our corn and soybean rotation. When surveyed, 56 percent of participants of the 2017 Cover Crop Conference held at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center indicated that their main challenge with cover crops was planting and establishment.
The first thing to look at when planning a cover crop is how you are going to plant it. This is challenging for many as there are a limited number of farming operations with no-till drills, especially large drill capable of seeding significant acres. However, drilling is still the most common method of establishment, according to survey participants, accounting for roughly 75 percent of the acres seeded to a cover crop after corn or soybeans. If you have a drill, if you haven’t started harvest yet, now might be a good time to go through it and make sure everything is ready to go. On the other hand, if you don’t have a drill, start looking for opportunities to rent one or hire someone to custom seed.
Another seeding option is broadcast spreading. Two options for this can be used right now to get cover crops started before harvest, aerially with a plane or with a high-clearance sprayer equipped with a seed attachment. The last option is to spread after harvest with a fertilizer spreader. Spreading has some advantages in allowing for earlier establishment and the ability to cover more acres in a day. However, you are sacrificing the seed to soil contact that a drill provides. If you choose this route, be sure to look at the forecast and either time spreading before forecast rain events or plan on irrigating if possible. Also, some species of cover crops, like rye, establish better with spreading than others, so talk with your seed supplier or check out the cropwatch.unl.edu/cover-crops webpage for more information.
This brings us to another key point -- seed. While there are more cover crop seed suppliers than a few years ago, seed can still be hard to find, so start finding seed well in advance of when you plan to start. This is especially true if you want to try a mixture with multiple species.
Remember that getting cover crops in as early as possible in the fall is key for good establishment, as cooler temperatures and shorter days quickly slow growth. This might mean finding extra labor to start seeding as soon as possible after the crop is harvested, or harvesting crops at higher moisture if possible.
The last thing to do before seeding is review your herbicide program this year. Some herbicides may cause carryover effects on cover crops, so review the labels and adjust your seeding mixture as needed.
Cover crops offer some great potential benefits, so take time to do things right to help ensure you get a good stand this fall.