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Top 10 changes in ag: Cover crops and seed treatments

Gil Gullickson 09/30/2011 @ 11:29am Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

Pity the person who has to compile the NFL Films' top 10 list.

Sure, there are clear-cut winners like the number one “Weather Football Game.” That's the sub-zero frostbitten 1967 Ice Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.

For every no-brainer like this, though, there are categories like the All-Time Top 10 Quarterbacks. Would it be a steely Johnny Unitas, a scrambling Fran Tarkenton, or a steady Payton Manning? That debate could consume several lifetimes for football fans.

It's a bit that way when Successful Farming editors decided to list the top 10 crop technologies. Compiling this list sounds easy. It wasn't.

Undoubtedly there are some technologies that you feel should have made the list. Present impact and potential future impact were considered. That's how a relatively minor concept like cover crops – number 10 in this issue – made the list with its great potential for the future. The rankings, which will continue in the November and December issues, are open to agreements and disagreements.

In the meantime, enjoy and assess the impact that these and other ag changes have had on your farm.

10. Cover crops

Just a few years ago, cover crops mainly resided in the organic farming arena. They're still a twinkle in the agronomic eye of many farmers. Just 18% of surveyed farmers in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana have ever used a cover crop.

Still, intense interest in cover crops and what they could bring to future crop production prompted their entry into this top 10 list.

“There is a lot of momentum for cover crops in the Midwest,” says Jeremy Singer, research agronomist for the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (NLAE).

Cover crops like vetch, radishes, winter wheat, rye, and lupines require a twist in conventional thinking. They aren't harvested for feed or grain like cash crops such as corn or soybeans. Farmers, instead, seed cover crops during or after the year's primary crop. Cover crops provide a cover until herbicides kill them in the current cash crop year.

Here are ways cover crops aid cash crops:

● Curb soil erosion.

● Boost soil organic matter.

● Capture nutrients. They can garner 20 to 40 pounds per acre of nitrogen, 2 to 5 pounds per acre of phosphorus, and 30 pounds per acre of potassium.

● Increase water infiltration and soil aeration. Cover crops help cash crops break through the devastating plow pan of compacted soils.

“We have dug up soybean roots that went 5 inches deep before going horizontal,” says Dave Robison, a cover crop and forage agronomist with The Cisco Companies. “By planting a cover crop of oats, radishes, and peas, we broke through that hardpan and had soybean roots in the 30-inch range.”

Cover crops require a shift to year-round thinking. “When we grow just corn, we have live biology and photosynthesis for just about six months,” says Robison. “When we harvest corn with no cover crop, the field starts to deteriorate. We are not building soil during that time.”

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