Cover crops should provide more than just cover

It’s not every day that you see someone trying to plant a cover crop in standing corn with a row crop planter. But, then, the footage at the beginning of the video accompanying this article isn’t from an ordinary planting operation.

The planter was configured by Charlie Martin, a farmer and equipment innovator from Pennsylvania who was participating in the Making Cover Crops Pay Field Day at the Memphis, Tenn., Agricenter International. Martin uses the rig to plant into a rye cover crop. Rye cover crops can grow to be six to eight feet tall.

But the only crop still standing at the Agricenter when the field day was conducted in late November was the corn in the Agricenter’s Mid-South Maze. So Martin and Cover Crop Solutions, which organized the field day, decided to try to let the corn simulate the standing rye. Most observers agreed the experiment was a success.

Cover crops have become a hot topic at the winter educational meetings being held around the country, in part, because planting cover crops is one of the practices growers can adopt to qualify for the Conservation Stewardship Program and other conservation activities.

But many farmers are beginning to see other benefits from cover crops, including preventing erosion from winter rains and improving soil health. (This week marked the beginning of the International Year of Soils.)

To get the most benefit from planting cover crops, growers need to ask themselves what they want to accomplish with the practice, says Tracy Blackmer, director of research for Cover Crops Solutions, who spoke at the field day.

“Why are you growing a cover crop; what do you have to do to make it pay?” he asked. “Some of the things you want to think about and plan on is how much growth do you want, not just so that you can have some green out there.

“Are you trying to break it to pasture land? Are you trying to add organic matter? Are you trying to fix nitrogen for the next crop? Are you trying to tie up nutrients? Are you trying to improve the rooting depth for the next crop? All those things can affect what species and when you have to plant to get that benefit.”

Farmers also need to think about terminating the cover crop in time for them to be able to plant the seasonal crop on time. “One of the problems experienced by newer cover crop producers is they don’t terminate the crop early enough,” Dr. Blackmer noted.

Growers also need to be aware of the difference in seeding rates and the differences in seed size. Some seeds, such as those of Winter Peas, don’t lend themselves to aerial seeding, which is sometimes used to get the cover crop planted on a timely basis.

“Can the planter you have plant any or all of these?” asked Blackmer. “These two – annual ryegrass and Winter Peas – have very different properties when it comes to putting them out with a planter.”

If they are planning to seed cover crops into the existing crop, farmers need to pay attention to timing. “You want sunlight for the cover crop to grow,” he says. “You do not have sunlight in this corn canopy (corn that has not begun to dry down); but you do in this more advanced crop.”

In soybeans, farmers have a different issue, he notes. “If you try to seed into soybeans too early, you don’t get the light you need. If you wait until the leaves drop, the seed never makes contact with the soil.” For more on the Making Cover Crops Pay Field Day, visit

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