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Plant Cover Crops this Fall and Reap the Rewards Next Spring

Sep 25, 2020

With harvest in the rear-view mirror for some and just on the horizon for others, seeding cover crops is nearing top of mind for a lot of growers in GreenPoint Ag’s service territory. A valued practice on many farms, planting cover crops has long been viewed as a great way to improve the retention of soil moisture and nutrients.
“Planting a cover crop in the fall has always been a smart way to hold and recover moisture and nutrients over the winter, particularly nitrogen (N) in the nitrate form,” notes Jason Haegele, WinField United Regional Agronomist. “This is especially the case in warmer climates, where winter rainfall has a tendency to wash N deeper down into the soil profile when living root systems aren’t there to absorb it.”
When a cover crop like cereal rye is present, it takes up N and holds it until the crop is killed off in the spring. Then the N is released back into the soil profile for the subsequent crop to utilize. It’s good for the pocketbook and a nod towards farm sustainability.
But those aren’t the only benefits of planting cover crops. Haegele says other advantages have made the practice even more popular among farmers in recent years.
“As we continue to learn more about soil health, we’ve found that leaving a field empty for 6 or 7 months out of the year can really put soil organisms at a disadvantage,” he explains. “Having living, growing plants in your fields throughout the season improves biological, chemical and physical soil properties. And when those plants die and decompose, they increase organic matter in the soil.”
Another important benefit of cover crops is that their root systems help reduce erosion – especially in geographies with hilly areas. They can help break disease cycles, and also provide habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators and wildlife. If you have a problem with winter annuals in your area, cover crops can be a valuable ally in the fight against weeds.
“A nice, thick cover crop competes with weed pressure and prevents populations from growing unchecked,” Haegele notes. “Although not a primary consideration, cover crops provide a useful forage source for livestock to feed on in the spring. This can also help limit your herbicide usage when it’s time to kill off the crop before planting row crops.”
When it comes to selecting the right cover crop for your fields, Haegele recommends planting something with good cold-hardiness so it can withstand frosts. From north to south, cereal rye is one of the most popular choices. And when established in the fall, cover crops like turnips and tillage radishes can also survive long into the winter in the South.
“An added benefit of radishes is that they have large root systems that help improve soil structure by decreasing compaction, and increasing infiltration and water holding capacity,” he adds.
The most common reason a grower might end up being disappointed with their cover crop is if they don’t terminate it early enough in the spring. Haegele says if the crop grows too big, it can be difficult to control with an herbicide application, and dry-down takes longer. Plus, additional cover crop residue can make planting a challenge in no-till fields, as it can be difficult to achieve adequate seed-to-soil contact and consistent seeding depths.
“I always encourage growers to spray their cover crop as quickly as possible in the spring,” he concludes. “Typically you’re going to use a non-selective herbicide like glyphosate, which has no plant-back restrictions so it won’t impact your spring crop. But on the flip side, you’ll want to make sure the cover crop you seed this fall won’t run into any problems with the herbicides you’ve used this past season. Chemistries with residual activity are often used on crops like corn, soybeans and cotton. Fortunately cereal rye is one of the least susceptible to these.”
If you have any concerns about selecting a cover crop that is compatible with past herbicide applications, be sure to consult your localGreenPoint Ag crop specialist. They’ll help you sort through your options and choose the best fit for your operation.

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