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Cover crops influence nitrogen utilization, help with no-till transition

Agriculture.com Staff 05/26/2010 @ 1:57pm

If you add a cover crop to a typical corn-soybean-wheat rotation, you can supply the vast majority of the nitrogen required to raise a good stand of corn, new data suggests.

"Cover crops produce enough nitrogen to where farmers many not need to add nitrogen fertilizer to their corn crop, but if they want to be sure of maximizing their yields, farmers can supplement the cover crops with 25 to 30 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer," says Rafiq Islam, an Ohio State University (OSU) Extension soil scientist. "That's more than enough a farmer needs to support the corn crop."

This is the basic takeaway from a recently concluded 7-year OSU study in which cowpeas, winter peas and other cover crops were tested to show how much each crop influences nitrogen supplies in the soil. In general, the study shows that the insertion of a cover crop into a conventional rotation can supply enough nitrogen to raise a 150-bushel-per-acre crop.

And, if you're thinking of moving from conventional tillage to no-till, cover crops could help you hedge against some of the inevitable yield drag during that transition, Islam adds.

"No-till farmers face yield reductions right off the bat -- 20% to 25% -- and those yield reductions last a good four or five years until the soil adjusts to the new production system," he says in a university report. "Also, they face compaction issues, weed control problems, wet fields, and the immobilization of nitrogen because of the increased carbon being stored in the surface soil."

Islam adds that, despite the benefits of cover crops, there are still some challenges growers face in incorporating them into their no-till system. A few include finding available seed, crucial timing of planting cover crops following wheat, planning ahead for planting cover crops, and knowing the right cover crops combination.

If you add a cover crop to a typical corn-soybean-wheat rotation, you can supply the vast majority of the nitrogen required to raise a good stand of corn, new data suggests.

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