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Avoid These 7 Cover Crop Mistakes

Cover crops have plenty of perks: soil health improvements, fewer weeds, and improved cash crop yields. Still, many farmers are leery of planting cover crops. The reason? Fear of failure. Don’t let this deter you.

“Ultimately, you can’t be afraid to make mistakes with cover crops,” says Joe Nester, owner of Nester Ag Consulting, Bryan, Ohio. “There is just so much good to be had from them.”

The best way not to make cover crop mistakes is to learn from errors made by early adopters of cover crops. Here are some common ones that you should avoid.

1. Not having goals

Do you want to build soil health and recycle nutrients? Feed livestock? Minimize erosion? Before planting cover crops, ask yourself why you want to plant a cover crop on your farm and how to best use it.

Different cover crops accomplish different tasks, says Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska. Grass cover crops create a quick mat of residue that can thwart weeds. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil. Brassicas can break up hardpans. Mixing all three accomplishes multiple tasks, he points out.

“You have to understand why you are planting cover crops,” Jasa says. “You can’t just plant them. There are many reasons, including erosion control, nutrient cycling, and improving soil health. But you have to answer the question why in order to know which seeds to select.”

Farmers who know why they want to plant will have a handier time determining what to plant, says Brian Berns, a farmer near Bladen, Nebraska, and co-owner of Green Cover Seeds, Inc. 

“A lot of guys want to keep it simple, and to them, that might mean planting one species. It is best to try to get as much diversity as possible outside the cash crop rotation,” Berns says. 

2. Making only a half-hearted effort

Some practitioners believe cover crops don’t need to be perfect. Steve Groff disagrees. “You need to treat cover crops with the same tenacity as you treat cash crops,” says the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, farmer and seed salesman.

Take seeding technique, for example. If you own a grain drill, you may be tempted to use a broadcast seeder instead because it is quicker. However, broadcast or aerial seeding compromises stand establishment.

When to plant a cover crop also is important. Ideally, it is as soon as possible after a cash crop is harvested. Any delay in planting can contradict the benefits of cover crops.

“There’s not a farmer around who is not ready to plant corn the very first day,” Groff explains. “Think about cover crops the same way. Every day counts. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

“You will get more life from your soil and start to notice a difference in your soils even if you only get three good cover crop years in 10,” he adds.

3. Not knowing when to terminate them

Establishing cover crops requires cash and time. You want them to grow, scavenge nutrients, and protect the soil. But too much growth isn’t always a good thing.

Nester says many cover crops will die in the winter, but cool-season cover crops may not. Deciding when to terminate them in the spring is not easy. Left to grow too long, cover crops can become weeds difficult to kill while sapping groundwater and nutrients. This can compromise the following cash crop.

“In the spring, my philosophy is, if in doubt, take it out. I’d rather terminate them two weeks early than two weeks too late,” Nester says.

4. Not knowing herbicide effects

After hail wiped out corn crops in Nebraska this year, Green Cover Seed began fielding questions on whether cover crops could be planted into the failed corn. It can be difficult to assess the residual effects herbicides may have on cover crops.

Berns, who owns Green Cover Seed with his brother, Keith, provided small-plot packets of cover crop seed mixes to help customers learn whether herbicide carryover would prevent the mix from growing.

“It’s not a guarantee, but it gives you an idea if there is any long-term effect to the herbicides used on a cash crop,” Berns explains.

Not knowing the impact herbicides applied to cash crops may have on cover crops can cost a lot of money.

Ryan Speer found out the hard way in 2012, when he planted a black oats cover crop in the previous year’s corn residue. The oats grew a few inches and died. The Halstead, Kansas, farmer had forgotten that he applied Basis, a sulfonylurea herbicide, to his corn crop.

“I was in such a hurry to get the ground covered up, I didn’t pay attention to the herbicide carryover,” he says. “When the black oats turned yellow, I remembered what I had applied. I wasted my money.”

5. Not being patient

Even if cover crops are adopted, soil and cash crop yields won’t improve overnight.

“You can’t grow a cover crop one year and make an ironclad decision on whether they pay or not,” Groff says. “It’s no different than evaluating a corn hybrid that may perform better one year than another. Cover crops take time.”

Berns agrees. “It’s hard not to have a preconceived notion of what you’re going to get,” he says. “Don’t assume if a cover crop only gets 4 inches tall and quits that you haven’t gained anything. Those soil creatures are still benefiting from the cover crop feeding the soil.”

Don’t expect miracles the first year, Jasa says. “If you don’t have a whole lot of soil biology yet, it is hard to feed it. But it will come.”

6. Not being a student of the concept

Cover crop enthusiasts are unique in that they often are willing to share information about their adoption. The winter meeting circuit is a great way to learn more. Even better, chances are you have a neighbor who can offer guidance in an environment similar to your own. 

“In almost any area of the country, there’s someone within a half hour’s drive who’s using cover crops and who isn’t going to farm without them. That’s the person to learn from,” Groff says.

Understanding how to manage the crop is important. “A lot of people say they tried it and it didn’t work,” Jasa says. “The question is, did they manage it correctly?”

7. Being afraid to fail

That cover crops can benefit the soil and, in turn, make soil more productive is not an easy concept to grasp.

“Soil health is like electricity. Many people don’t understand electricity, but they like it,” Berns says. “Cover crops are the same way. You need to know the basics, but you don’t need to know all the minute details.”

Cover crop performance depends on the same environmental and input factors as cash crops.

With cover crop seed fetching a pretty penny, it’s difficult to accept mistakes on a crop from which you likely won’t see any income.

However, longtime cover crops advocate Dwayne Beck of Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota, puts it in perspective. “If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough,” he says.

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