Cover Crops: The Future Or Just A Fad?

In recent years, the addition of cover crops into a corn/soybean rotational cropping system has become more popular as the potential benefits of cover crops have become more widely recognized. Cover crops offer a wide variety of benefits to soil structure and health, but they can also add new management challenges and risks. Oftentimes, cover crops are seen as a long-term investment in soil productivity.

What is a Cover Crop?

A cover crop is defined as a crop that is planted to keep the ground covered from the harmful effects of erosion. As a positive consequence, the cover crop keeps the soil microbes below ground thriving throughout the year. One of the most common and inexpensive cover crops is cereal rye. Wheat, oats, turnips, radishes and other “cocktail” cover crop mixes are also used in this area. Cover crops are most commonly used:  after corn is cut for silage, after seed corn harvest, or for manure management. There is an increasing interest in growing cover crops after corn/soybean harvest. The cover crop planting window is short, but cover crops such as cereal rye can germinate in soil temperatures as low as 33 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cover Crop Benefits

The true benefits of cover crops may be hard to notice in years that are favorable for crop production. Cover crops speed up the process of making soils resilient to drought and extreme temperatures. This is due to the extra residue and roots from the cover crop that aids in the building up of soil organic matter which in turn increases the soil’s resiliency. A resilient soil will have a higher water holding capacity, better soil structure (that acts like a sponge when it rains), and higher organic matter. A resilient soil has proven to produce more consistent yields.

One important benefit that I have seen on my own farm is the shading effect that the cereal rye cover crop (that gets sprayed in late April) produces in late May to mid-June. The dead cover crop insulates the ground from erosion and, in addition, it protects the soil from the hot sun rays that almost seem to suck the moisture right out of the ground when the crops are small. The cover crop also helps suppress spring weed pressure that seems to be getting harder to control every year.

For livestock producers, a cover crop provides an extra feed source that can result in feed savings. Cover crops have also proven to help in manure management. The cover crop uptakes the available nutrients from the manure, then it releases the nutrients throughout the year. This can help prevent nutrients leaching into our precious groundwater.

Cover Crop Termination

In most cases, a sprayer will be needed before planting in order to get the pre-plant herbicide on. During this application, it is easy (cheap) to add in herbicide to terminate the cover crop. The challenge is to get the field sprayed on a warm day while also in a timely fashion. “Green planting” = the practice of planting corn/soybeans into a growing cover crop may be a viable option if the proper planter management is used. It is important to plant at the correct depth when green planting, otherwise the cover crop will take the moisture away from the soybean or corn seedling.

Cost of Cover Crop

The cost of planting & terminating a cover crop can vary depending on the type of cover crop. Cereal rye is usually around $7-10 per bushel and will vary depending on the quantity of seed available. In most instances 0.8-1.2 bushels/acre is a sufficient seeding rate for cereal rye. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the most common price charge for custom no-till drilling small seeds was $17-$18 per acre. If aerial application is used instead of drilling, the cost will be around $15-$20 per acre. The extra cost of herbicide may add $7-$10 per acre, but in fields with a history of marestail and other spring germinated weeds, the extra herbicide cost may have needed anyways. A total cost for cover crop is expected to be around $30-$40 per acre. Note: the cost of the sprayer is not used in this calculation because it is determined the sprayer was also needed for pre-plant herbicide.

The Bottom Line

Depending on your location, the Natural Resource Conservation Service or Natural Resource District may have a program that will provide cost share for trying cover crops on your land. I have heard of NRCS and NRD programs providing anywhere from $20-$50 per acre to try cover crops. In most instances, it won’t cost the landowner very much at all to try cover crops. If you sign up for land management today, a UFARM Land Manager will take care of all the necessary cost-share paperwork. We will make sure your land is planted with cover crops in order to ensure a sustainable farm that makes it possible to reduce the environmental impact while increasing the productivity of your land for years to come.

Article by:

Andrew Stech

Andrew Stech
Land Manager
Associate Real Estate Broker–NE