Level Up Your Cover Crops

Turn 2020 Lessons into Strategies for 2021.

Cover crops hold the potential to build organic matter, improve soil structure, prevent erosion, and reduce compaction.

All of these contribute positively to your soil’s health and can lead to financial efficiencies over time.

Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve been cover cropping for years, “leveling up” your cover crops strategy in 2021 can help build resilience in the face of constant uncertainties, like unpredictable weather or markets.

Bill Frederick, co-founder of Iowa Cover Crop shares three tips to enhance your cover crop practices.

Cover Crop Varieties

While cereal rye and oats are popular due to their robust growth and ease of termination, a mix of other varieties can pull double-duty.

Iowa Cover Crop recommends seed mixes that include turnips and radishes to farmers who have livestock grazing the land.

Lee Tesdell, farmer in central Iowa, has been integrating cover crops for nine years on his century farm, and has planted cereal rye every year but one. This fall, Tesdell is planting a mix of turnip, oats, and rye with an aim to provide forage for his sheep. This approach will cut down on the cost of feed and accelerate soil health improvements.

Cover crop mixes can quickly get complicated.

“Some farmers want to try 10-way mixes with fairly exotic plants,” Frederick says. “We don’t discourage trying something new because that’s how we learn. But if you’re only now starting out, consider just planting rye, oats, or turnips and see how they grow.”

Cover Crop Application

Frederick says he and his business partner at Iowa Cover Crop, James Holz, have found equipment to be a barrier to cover crop planting. Rather than making a big investment in additional machinery, working with custom applicators to fly on or drill cover crop seed may be the best way to get started.

“From an applicator standpoint, we love the people who call us ahead of time, as early as July, to plan fall cover crop application,” Frederick says.

He recommends establishing your cover crop plan early and communicating it with your custom applicator as soon as you do.

Of course, plans change, and some methods pose more risk than others.

“With an airplane, you may see streaks in the field where seed has drifted or a gap between yours and your neighbor’s fields where the applicator avoided spreading seed,” Frederick says.

Weather creates challenges too. As many parts of the Midwest experienced unseasonably wet falls in the past few years, drilling cover crop seed after harvest became nearly impossible.

Lee Tesdell’s farm is surrounded by cornfields that suffered wind damage in the derecho this year. Downed corn will be difficult to plant cover crops into. “We planted soybeans on our farm this year and are luckier than if it had been corn,” Tesdell says. “Still, we are thinking about using a high-clearance machine to plant our cover crop mix.”

Cover Crop Seed Cost

Frederick recommends two strategies to keep your cover crop seed costs down.

First, prices naturally increase as the season goes on. If you do establish your plan and buy seed early, you will more likely avoid pricier options.

Second, consider buying in bulk. Iowa Cover Crop packages seed in 50-pound bags or 40-bushel totes, saving farmers money year after year.

Farmers like Tesdell also evaluate the cost of the mix. A cereal rye, oats, and turnips mix is likely to be more economical than a 10-way mix because it is simple.

“Everyone has a neighbor who has been cover cropping for a while,” says Frederick. “Talk to them, talk to your seed dealer, and put together your own plan.”

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