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Cover Crop Benefits Outweigh Investment

There’s never a time when you take out an old fencerow that the strip doesn’t produce the best crop in the field, insists Indiana farmer Jamie Scott. “Even if there are spider mites in the field, they don’t seem to affect the old fencerow,” he says.

That’s just part of the reason Jamie and his father, Jim, are 100% sold on cover crops combined with a no-till program they adopted in the early 1980s. They are convinced that planting everything from rye and clover to radishes and turnips on all 2,000 acres they farm near Pierceton, Indiana, provides benefits that far outweigh the investment in seed and labor. 

Net returns of $600 to $700 per acre are among the benefits.

That is also the reason they added wheat back into the rotation two years ago, even though wheat is seldom found in the corn-soybean plan that tends to dominate most Indiana farms.

Diverse rotation

The main objective for adding wheat to the rotation was to expand the number of cover crop types and species we can add to the blend,” Jamie says, pointing out that each species provides its own benefits. “After corn, we’re pretty well limited to rye grass, crimson clover, and rapeseed, while soybeans are followed by ryegrass, wheat, and some type of legume. However, when wheat is added to the rotation, we can use a whole cocktail of plants, including cowpeas, hemp, vetch, millet, and buckwheat, as well as brassicas like turnips and radishes.”

As a result, Jamie says their crop rotations now typically consist of corn-soybeans-wheat, corn-corn-soybeans-wheat, or corn-soybeans-corn-soybeans-wheat. Meanwhile, they’ve gone to earlier maturing varieties of both corn and soybeans for the best compromise between crop yields and harvest dates. Even then, cover crops are seeded into standing corn by airplane, while cover crops on soybeans are either flown on or drilled, depending on when harvest is finished.

“Some of our cover crops require as little as 30 days to get some good out of them,” Jamie says. “There’s a big difference between the 30 days after August 1 and the 30 days following September 1. When we get into September, we really need 60 days,” he adds, noting that they lose 1½ hours of sunlight and see an average drop in temperature of 12°F. between early September and early October.

Aerial seeding generally starts in late August, and the average application date is September 7. So by the time the combine rolls into the field, there will already be a dense stand of ryegrass and clover, which not only helps reduce compaction but also provides better footing for equipment.

Additional perks

The benefits go beyond reduced soil erosion and less compaction. Following are five additional perks.

  • Improved water infiltration. “Ryegrass can send roots down 50 to 60 inches over the winter,” explains Jamie. “Once the cover crops die, they leave channels for water to move even deeper into the soil.”
  • Less compaction. While cover crops help during harvest, they do even more during the fall and winter when long roots break up the soil.
  • Increased organic matter.  “With a corn-soybean rotation, even with no-till, we can’t gain organic matter,” adds Jamie. “With cover crops, we’re building organic matter and holding more nutrients and water.”
  • Recycled nutrients. “Since we went to a combination of no-till and cover crops, our fertilizer bills have gone down and our soil tests have gone up,” says Jamie.
  • Higher yields. Every year, the Scotts have seen their yields exceed the county average by a significant amount, even in years with weather stress.

Sharing experiences
Jamie hasn’t limited his research and experience with cover crops to his own family farm, though.

After sharing his experience with neighbors and helping them establish their own cover crops, Jamie started Scott’s Cover Crops, a business that today serves nearly 400 other farmers, provides seed for around 100,000 acres, and seeds more than 50,000 acres with the help of four airplanes.

Jamie also puts out at least 30 different cover crop test plots each year in three different counties on several different soil types. Those plots will also include up to 50 different cover crop types and species.

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