Skip to main content

Incorporate cover crops for plant and soil health

February 28, 2018
Incorporate cover crops for plant and soil health

Kentucky farmer Jim Wade plants three- and four-way mixes/combinations of various seeds with cereal rye.

Are you looking to improve soil health and your area’s water quality? Kentucky farmer Jim Wade believes you should look no further than the addition of cover crops to your farm operation.

Cover crops can help with nutrient trapping, erosion prevention and weed reduction.

Nutrient trapping and erosion prevention

Wade plants three- and four-way mixes/combinations of various seeds with cereal rye. The use of a cover crop mixture that contains two or more species is often more effective than a planting of single species cover crop. Wade has experimented with cover crop combinations that include red clover, crimson, vetch and Austrian winter peas.

His cover crops provide extremely good winter cover and help prevent soil erosion. The cereal rye has deep roots, Wade noted, making the soil more porous and increasing its water-holding capability.

“My fields planted with cover crops don’t have brown runoff,” said Wade. “I measure for compaction and never find any.” 

Building soil health is very important. Over time, a cover crop regimen increases soil organic matter, leading to improvements in soil structure, stability and increased moisture and nutrient-holding capacity for plant growth.

Cover crops also add organic, living matter to the soil with the degradation of their roots, explained Chuck McKenna, Alltech Crop Science territory sales manager. McKenna cited a research demonstration by the University of Kentucky in which one field plot has been no-tilled for more than 30 years.

“There is nearly a difference of 10 inches in soil height between that and the rest of the area,” he noted, referring to the building of organic matter.

No-till is almost a requirement when incorporating cover crops, added Wade. On his farm — where he raises corn, soybeans and wheat — he has been practicing no-till on 100 percent of his acres for more than 10 years.

Weed reduction

Another issue led Wade to experiment with cover crops: weed resistance.

“The first thing I noticed after trying cover crops was that I no longer had a horseweed (marestail) problem,” said Wade.

This year, he has a split test on corn acres.

“The test looks to be very definitive,” he said, in favor of those with cover crops.

With reduced weed pressure, Wade has been able to cut his herbicides cost in half.

Additional return on investment

Although today’s commodity prices are low, this is not the time to cut back on exploring cover crops, suggested McKenna.

“Many farmers think they can’t afford to plant cover crops or think they don’t have the time to incorporate them into their operations,” he added. “If they put a pencil to it, they would see that they can’t afford not to!”

Wade is one of many farmers participating in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). He has enrolled 600 of his 1,000 acres in the cost-sharing program.

In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service is making $150 million available for agricultural producers through the CSP. It is estimated this will help add 10 million acres to the USDA’s largest conservation program.

With yield being the main way to increase profit, Wade happily reported that he believes he will see a 10 percent yield increase in his soybean fields this year.

Local adaption

As with any early adopter, Wade has had to adapt current technology to keep up with changing needs. With a background including training in engineering, he has modified his equipment to fit his cover crop strategy.

Crimpers are a good idea, Wade suggested. He has also custom built a 60-foot planter for planting into cover crops.

“It’s heavier than it used to be, and I use as much down pressure as I can get,” he said.

To plant the cover crops, Wade has a Hagie highboy sprayer that has been modified for broadcast seeding.

In conclusion, McKenna believes the addition of cover crops are a win-win for producers.

“They fit into an overall plant and soil health scheme,” he said. “They can complement — not replace —conventional programs.” 

Have a question or comment?