8 Critical Cover Crop Best Practices

More farmers are using cover crops on their operation, notes Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. That also means it's as important as ever to share best practices so they can gain the maximum benefits from this production practice, he says. That's where retailers can help.

"Farmers using cover crops are seeing the benefits of reduced erosion, improved water quality and soil health - and even better weed control," he says. "But, spring management decisions remain critical to successful cover cropping.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa State University, Iowa Learning Farms and USDA's Agriculture Research Service worked together to assemble some best practices for using cover crops. Here are their top eight pieces of advice.

1. Evaluate for winterkill. For those who saw a mild winter (and many did), cover crops that usually die may have overwintered instead. Some species like oilseed radish and oats typically winterkill, with no additional spring management needed. Other species consistently overwinter, like cereal rye, winter wheat and triticale.

2. Know the termination options. There are two main types - tillage and herbicides. Tillage can be effective but also reduces the cover crop's effectiveness against erosion and weed suppression. Herbicides should only be applied after plants have greened up.

3. Consider nitrogen needs. Winter cereal cover crops can effectively reduce available N through April and May, so consider applying 30 lb. to 50 lb. of N at or near corn planting. That will help overcome soil N that is tied up early season.

4. Evaluate planter setup. In particular, double-check that the seed slot/trench is properly closed at planting. Open seed slots can damage corn seed (soybean seeds seem to rebound better).

5. Scout for insects. Be especially mindful where winter cereal cover crop biomass is thick. Be on the lookout for armyworm species in these instances.

6. Know crop insurance requirements. Find specifics at www.rma.usda.gov/help/faq/covercrops2016.html.

7. Begin planning for next year now. Determine now what cover crops are going to have the best fit. Study residual herbicides that may have carryover restrictions for certain cover crop species. This chart will help.

8. Take the survey. The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) conducts an annual cover crop survey, which takes about 15 minutes to complete, is completely anonymous and helps CTIC guide cover crop policy, research and education.

"Hopefully these tips and the resources that are available statewide will help farmers have success as they manage their cover crops this spring. We want farmers to have a successful experience and be encouraged to try cover crops again in the future," Northey says.