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Uncovering cover crops

12/14/2010 @ 11:01am

Keith Berns’ motto is to no-till cover crops because soil should always be covered. With this idea and the use of cover crops, the Bladen, Nebraska farmer and his brother, Brian, have seen healthier soils.

“If you can see the soil, then it has a chance of washing or blowing away,” Keith Berns explains. “If it is covered with residue or a crop, there is little chance this will happen.”

Dale Mutch, cover crops/field crops IPM specialist with Michigan State University, says producers should keep fields green as long as possible throughout the entire year. “If you are just planting corn and soybeans, the ground is only green for four to five months. If you plant a cover crop, there are living systems in the soil for more like nine to 10 months,” he explains.

Not only will keeping the ground covered help with erosion, but also it helps with evaporation. Berns says he looks at both when deciding what cover crops to use. When you can see the soil, water can evaporate. But when it is covered, it is shaded and prevents evaporation.

Mutch says producers need to first ask themselves why they are planting a cover crop in the first place. Different cover crops work better for certain situations.

“Every field is different,” Mutch says. “There are all kinds of soil types in the Midwest. Farmers need to experiment with them and find out what works best to fit their system.”

Cover crops aren’t a quick fix, he explains, but a long-term investment in the soil quality. “You can see affects from weeds in one year,” says Mutch. “We can’t increase organic matter in a few years. That takes 10 to 15 years to see.”

Different Crops, Different Results

In addition to deciding why cover crops should be planted, producers should look at when they are available to be planted. For Berns planting another crop after his wheat harvest is best for him. “I harvest my winter wheat in July and don’t plant again until April. That is a long period of time with nothing growing,” he says.


Mutch says for corn or soybean producers, winter annuals such as cereal rye or annual ryegrass work well in the fall. With wheat, he suggests oats, rye crops, legumes, or oilseed radish.

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