Cover crops can be a wonderful addition to a farming operation, according to Randy McElroy, technology development representative with Monsanto. They do require some extra planning – starting with a different timetable than some farmers may be used to dealing with.
“I encourage people to think in terms of an 18-month planning process instead of year-to-year,” he says.
With cover crops comes a lot of new decisions, from the cover crop “recipes” themselves and how to apply to how to terminate ahead of planting. How to apply cover crops might be one of the easier decisions, according to McElroy.
“The reality is, it’s very difficult to get better stand establishment than with using a drill,” he says. “There are a lot of other creative ways, such as aerial seeding or seeding from combine heads, but the drill’s still the best way we’ve got.”
Deciding on a cover crop mix can be more difficult, McElroy admits. Making goals for each field can help. Is the primary goal erosion control? Weed suppression? Nutrient management? A different mix of cover crops can feed into these different goals. For example, a uniform stand of cereal rye can help suppress amaranth species. And crimson clover can boost nitrogen rates.
“Decide up front what you want to accomplish in a given field,” McElroy says.
Also be aware that there are several different termination options in the spring, McElroy adds. For example, you may be able to execute a selective kill to take out grass species but keep a legume species alive longer to fix more nitrogen in the soil.
The bottom line is, cover crops require a different skill set and thought process, McElroy says. Don’t give up on the practice too quickly, he says.
“You may have an off year, but don’t throw it away because of a single field or experience,” he says. “You need to really want to do it. There’s no halfway.”
Looking for more information on cover crops? Be sure to check out Farm Journal Media's Cover Crop Resource Guide.