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

Farmers across the state aren’t getting much of a post-planting reprieve, as temperatures continue to heat up and rainfall continues to stay away lately across most of the Cornhusker state. As such, irrigation motors are firing up rapidly as producers fret about their emerging crops amidst the hot, dry conditions.

Peer pressure is most certainly a factor, it seems, when it comes to irrigation. Many producers convince themselves that their soil moisture is adequate for another day or two, but when the neighboring pivot fires up that evening, it can be difficult to not follow suit.

Many times, however, soil moisture conditions are adequate, and, increasingly, farmers across the state and nation are trading in guessing for certainty by utilizing the latest moisture monitoring technology, with significant cost-saving results.

A popular source for this innovation around Nebraska is through San Diego-based company AquaSpy, whose high-tech soil moisture probes deliver real-time data to producers, revealing the detailed moisture content and temperature of their fields at different depths and times of day. Farmers are then able to determine vital information about their crops, including how deep the roots have penetrated and how well the plants are utilizing the fertilizer at varying depths.

This probe-data is wirelessly sent in real-time to an easy-to-manage dashboard, which may then be accessed on any computer or mobile device, allowing users to monitor their fields at any time and place.

Armed with this detailed analysis, producers are able to actively manage their irrigation efforts based on hard data, not conjecture.

North-Central Nebraska farmer and AquaSpy user Tim Schmeeckle revealed that he ran his center-pivots three fewer times with AquaSpy than the year before. With the costs associated with pumping and labor to run each pivot estimated to be around $1,000, Schmeekle estimates a savings of $30,000 that year.

“It is kind of like a fuel gauge on your car,” he said. “We know how much moisture we started with. We know how much the roots are taking out of the ground, and we know how deep we are putting that water back in.”

The Nebraska Ag Water Management Network has estimated a water-savings of 2 inches per acre for those utilizing any soil moisture monitoring technology—a cost saving measure that adds up to $10-$30 per acre.

According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, moisture sensor technology not only reduces pumping costs, but may also improve crop growth and yield by helping farmers avoid the detrimental effects caused by overwatering upon soil conditions and nutrient leaching.

Producers who are ready to give such technology a try are encouraged to install their sensors early on in the season to ensure proper operation. Early installation helps minimize root damage, allows time for the sensors to acclimate to the soil moisture conditions, and ensures a better chance for proper soil contact.

Controlling input costs and keeping a tight rein on irrigation output has a significant effect on a producer’s bottom line—now more than ever. If you are considering utilizing moisture sensing data into your operation, please let us help you decide the best way to move forward with this exciting technology.

UFARM offers a full range of Nebraska land management services, including real estate sales, rural property appraisals, consultations and crop insurance. UFARM has operated in Nebraska since the early 1930’s. If you have questions about yields and productivity on your rented farmland, give the UFARM managers contact us today!

Sources consulted: Freeman, Mike. “Drought-Stricken Fields Get Boost From Technology.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. The San Diego Union Tribune. 17 Jul. 2014. Web. 13 Jun. 2017.  Nygren, Aaron. “Value of Using Sensors for Irrigation and Tips for Proper Installation.” Cropwatch. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 8 Jun. 2017. Web. 13 Jun. 2017.