For farmers north of I-80 (in Iowa), cover crops may seem like wishful thinking. Early frost in the fall can prevent fields from developing a good cover before the ground freezes for good. Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a research partner of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), is looking for a solution.

The group began conducting V6 cover crop application trials last year on corn with cereal rye. This application is approximately a month and a half ahead of typical aerial application and three months before drilling. The idea behind early application is to give the covers more time to germinate, providing more benefits.

“It’s about getting all the regular cover crop benefits, but getting more of them,” said Stefan Gailans, PFI research and field crops director. “All of the benefits are increased as cover crop growth increases. More growth equals more erosion protection, more protection from nutrients leeching, more forage for livestock in the fall. It’s a way to get a head start on the cover cropping season.”

As with many experiments, the first year was a learning experience that didn’t go exactly as planned. While the cover crops germinated well and grew strong for six weeks, once the corn was tall enough and the canopy closed the cover crops withered away due to lack of sunlight.

Not to be deterred, the group is back at it again this year with new varieties and a new strategy. Brassicas such as rapeseed, radishes and turnips as well as annual rye grass may work better with less sunlight. Another consideration taken this year was trying to plant into a seed corn field in the hopes that detasseling and the removal of the male rows will improve the amount of light getting to the ground.

Farmers wanting to experiment on their operations with V6 application should take caution. Gailans recommends having a talk with insurance agents before applying into a standing cash crop so there are no surprises at harvest. He also said paying close attention to the operation’s herbicide management plan is crucial.

“The main thing farmers thinking about conducting this research have to consider is their herbicide plan,” Gailans said. “Farmers need to know they can’t put a residual down that may hurt their cover crop and after the cover crop seed is applied they can’t do a post-emergence spray. These things are important factors to consider.”

What the results coming in this year will show, nobody can know for sure. But both PFI and ISA are committed to continuing to work toward giving farmers more options to improve their productivity and sustainability.

“It’s not an established practice,” Gailans said. “It’s a good idea in theory, we’re trying to see if we can make it work, if our farmers can make it work, it’s very experimental at this point but the intent is true.”