Monday, August 5, 2013

Conservation Cover: One Man’s Experience

Ed Roll is no stranger to Conservation Cover.  Not only has Ed served 25 years with the Indiana State Department of Agriculture Division of Soil Conservation as a Resource Specialist, he has also spent 30-years-and-still-counting working on his own farm.  Ed has spent that time practicing what he preaches to other land owners.  He regularly utilizes cover crops to replenish nutrients and increase soil health.

I regularly work with producers to get Conservation Cover on the land.  This process has recently been helped by utilizing Clean Water Indiana cost share funds.  I also serve as a member of the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative (CCSI) South East Indiana Regional Hub which sponsors various educational events.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service website, interest in cover crops has skyrocketed over the past few years in the eastern Corn Belt.  Remarkably though, cover crops are an age-old practice for maintaining soil productivity.  They have been used for years to control erosion and improve water infiltration.   Cover crops also work to balance the biological community as well as many other environmental benefits.  ( )
Planting a winter cover crop is a great way to improve soil health through the off-season.  While other land sits dormant, cover crops build fertility for the following year.  Cover crops can improve soil texture, boost organic matter, prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and provide food and shelter for beneficial insects.
Selecting the correct cover crop to plant is important.    It depends upon whether a producer wants to scavenge nitrogen or produce nitrogen for the next year’s row crop.  It can also depend upon the desire to conserve other nutrients and moisture.   The Midwest Cover Crops Council has a great website that can help you select cover crops to best fit your needs (
In general, there are two basic types of winter cover crops:
1) Those that grow vigorously in fall but are easily killed by cold temperatures (such as oats and radish in most areas of Indiana).   
2) Those that survive winter cold and resume growth in spring (such as clovers, winter rye and wheat).
The first kind is relatively easy to manage because they normally winter kill.  The trade-off is that you must sow these covers earlier to get adequate growth and maximum benefit before the plants are killed by the cold.  Oats and radishes are examples that should be sown by early September in the north and a couple weeks later in the south.   
The second kind of winter cover crop — those that overwinter and continue growing in spring — can be sown a bit later into fall.  This includes wheat, cereal rye or rye grass.  These crops will need to be terminated in the spring at planting time.
Seeding methods for cover crops may vary depending on the preferred seeding dates.  Some producers drill the seed or broadcast it after harvest.  Another option is to utilize aerial seeding while the primary crop is still in the field. 
My brother, Jack, and I utilize cover crops on part of our 1200 acres that we operate in southern Indiana.  We especially appreciate the benefits of erosion control, nitrogen scavenger, nitrogen producer, weed control and others.  We are careful to sow only the amount of cover crops that we know we can manage. 
Our cover crops are selected to match the next year’s crop, as well as the specific fields that will receive the greatest benefit.   Each year presents a new opportunity to try something different to see what works for us.   I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Indiana State Department of Agriculture-Division of Soil Conservation.  My work has provided me with a good knowledge and a renewed interest in cover crops.  This matches up well with my years of farming.
 In the summer of 2012, I selected a few fields that I was going to plant in corn for the 2013 growing season.  I decided that with the high cost of nitrogen I would see if I could produce some myself with the help of Crimson Clover.  I felt that clover was the best fit for my management system.  I considered aerial seeding, soil types, termination timing and cost.
I look at cover crops like a medical prescription and consider what side effects may be present.  I weigh out the “what ifs” that I need  to consider.  It’s important to remember that cover crop management is different for everyone.  You need to see what works for you.

Due to the wet spring I started no-tilling corn a couple weeks later than normal so that put  my Crimson Clover in full bloom which I believe marks the peak for producing nitrogen.  I allowed a couple of days to chemically burn down the clover and was still able to get my corn planted. 
As I continue to watch the crop progress, I have found that it was easier to terminate the Crimson Clover than I had thought.  Another benefit that I have noticed is weed suppression; I normally would have had to come back over this particular field to spray for weeds.  With the thick mat of clover, I eliminated the need for that pass.

No comments:

Post a Comment