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

Planting Cover CropsWhile corn and soybeans are the dominant crops grown in Nebraska, many farmers are also looking toward maximizing their land’s efficiency and productivity by adding cover crops like turnips and radishes to their usual crop rotations.

There are multiple benefits to planting a cover crop. Planting cover crops to fallow fields improves soil structure, reduces weeds, adds and retains moisture, prevents erosion and runoff, adds important nutrients to the soil, builds up organic matter, and prevents compaction. They are used to feed cattle, as well. Increasingly, Nebraska farmers are recognizing these advantages and incorporating them into their fields as much as possible.

After a field is harvested, there is less residue remaining to protect the soil from the elements. In a drier year, many farmers harvest the residue as forage for their livestock or cut silage, so the residue remaining is even less. Less surface residue leaves fields more vulnerable to erosion from rain and wind. Research has shown that fields left open to the elements lose much more moisture to evaporation than fields that have a cover crop.

There is a lot of research going into microorganisms in soil, and the importance of feeding them. Just as humans benefit from consuming a diverse diet, so too do soil microorganisms. Cover crops provide this added nutritional diversity. Farmers who have grown cover crops for several years have seen the organic matter of their soil drastically improve as a result. They find that there is less need to apply nitrogen to their fields, as the radishes mine the depths of the ground for the existing nitrogen deep in the soil and make it more readily available on the surface for future crops such as corn.

Cover crops help prevent soil compaction that can occur in particular types of soils. In particular, this is why the root vegetables like turnips and radishes are useful; they naturally dig in and create soil channels where moisture and nutrients can then penetrate. Fields where farmers have planted radishes are often less susceptible to soil compaction, since the radishes produce a very long tap root that breaks through the tough, deep soil. The plants break up the soil while they are in the ground, like a natural plow.

Turnips are an excellent cover for farmers who graze cattle on their fields after harvest. They are a high moisture plant, and cattle favor them due to their high sugar content. They are packed with protein, as well, and so make a great forage plant for cattle through the winter months.

Turnip and radish seed are relatively inexpensive, and producers that have utilized them as cover crops say that the positive results they see are worth the cost.

As farmers and landowners endeavor to maximize their land, as well as to increase their yields, they are using any means available to get the most out of their ground while keeping input costs down. They are learning that planting beneficial cover crops like turnips and radishes are a great way to do just that.

The land managers at UFARM can help you maximize your land’s potential.  Contact UFARM today.