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Nebraska Growers See Growing Opportunities with Cover Crops

There are so many opportunities that cover crops present to farmers, Ben Steffen wonders if they might pave the way for helping young people return to the farm. 

Steffen, who farms near Burr, Nebraska, has a dairy herd. While he doesn't graze his cover crops, he knows plenty of people who do, which had him thinking out loud during a Nebraska No-till and Soil Health workshop in Beatrice on February 23.

"We have 130 cows and four full-time employees. I'm not sure sometimes if we're raising cash crops, cover crops, milk, or people," he says. "I think there's opportunity to employ some people, when you put the combination together, that we as farmers are not yet capturing." 

Steffen was one of four Nebraska farmers who shared cover crop experiences with the audience. 

For his part, Steffen knows that cover crops can help scavenge nutrients from deep in the soil. He plants oats and radish cover crops following harvested wheat. Into the cover crop mixture he plants corn the next spring to scavenge nutrients.  

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He doesn't own a sprayer, so timely termination of the rye cover crop in the spring demands constant communication with a custom applicator. "We like to terminate the crop early, but you have to pick a day that is warm, or you may have to spray it twice," he says. 

He has become a big believer in cover crops. "I think it is critical to plan ahead and just do it. Don't get tied up in how precise the seeding rate is, just do it. Getting it done is more important than what the mix is," he says. 

Dave Endorf, Daykin, has flown cover crop mixes onto irrigated soybeans going into corn the last few years. His mix includes 50 pounds of cereal rye, 2 pounds of turnips, and 2 pounds of radishes. 

"Timing is critical. You have to wait until the soybeans are starting to turn, or you will be disappointed," Endorf says. By soybean harvest, the cover crop is nice and green. 

Roth Aerial Spraying flies on the mix from Milford. The cost of seed and application is about $32 per acre. He is considering using rapeseed instead of radishes to cheapen up the cover crop mix. 

Endorf began using cover crops as a Conservation Security Program enhancement. He has been pleased with the positive changes in the soil, even though the cover crops don't get very big. "Turnips will be about the size of a golf ball, but the taproot goes 8 inches into the ground. The rye has a small rosette," he explains. "It doesn't look like much, but the soil is filled with earthworms." 

Endorf says growers need to be wary of the herbicide products used in a weed-control program. Many products have residual weed control activity, which often conflict with cover crop establishment. Also, timing is important. 

"I typically spray mine early, about the same time I would spray wheat in the spring. In 2012, however, I had a new sprayer and wasn't able to get in the field when I wanted to. In four days, the cereal rye went from 4 inches to a foot tall. It hurt my corn yield a little bit because we were dry that year," he says. "If you depend on a custom applicator, you better get things lined up with him ahead of time." 

Russell Moss, who farms near Burr, first used cover crops to improve waterways and as cover on newly-installed terraces. He has since adopted a mix of 35 pounds of rye, 2 pounds of radishes, and 1 pound of turnips, all flown onto standing corn. 

"We plant 106-day corn, which is mature by August. So we can get good growth on the cover crops by winter," Moss says. 

The mix costs about $28, but provides a good grazing source for Moss's cowherd, he adds. 

Like Moss, Tyler Burkey is enthused about integrating cover crops into a cattle grazing system. 

The Dorchester rancher has planted rye cover crops into corn. He then puts cattle on the rye/corn stalk fields after harvest. He has moved the cowherd to an August-September calving period to take advantage of better weather. In turn, that leads to a more effective cover crop grazing system.

"On November 1, we turn cows into the cornfields and leave them until spring. We bring them home for just a few days before we send the calves to a feedlot," he explains. 

Cover crop cocktails can provide a host of additional grazing opportunities, which Burkey is just now exploring.

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