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When to Fly Rye

Successful aerial application of cereal rye and other cover crops is a combination of timing, moisture, and luck.

Planning to fly on a cover crop of cereal rye into standing corn or soybeans is a good idea for growers seeking to gain soil health benefits. 

However, make sure the timing is right, advises Jerrel Roth, co-owner of Rother Aerial Spraying of Milford, Nebraska. That means making sure daylight is penetrating the crop canopy. 

“Basically, if you don’t see any sun spots on the ground, it’s not time. If sunlight is hitting the ground here and there, you can fly cereal rye on,” Roth says. “If it is dark on the surface below the canopy, you may as well not do it.”

For successful cover crop establishment, capturing sunlight is vital, adds Brian Berns, who co-owns Green Cover Seed near Bladen, Nebraska, with his brother, Keith. 

“The thicker the crop canopy, the harder it is to get established. If it’s dark, the rye won’t do very well,” Berns says. 

Rye – and other cover crop seeds – will germinate on the soil surface even if the surface is dark. But without sunlight, the crop will not grow and will eventually die off, Berns and Roth agree. 

The soil surface should be moist, enabling flown-on seed to make good contact. Hard, dry soil does not make a good seedbed for aerially applied crops. 

Still, aerially applying cereal rye seed can give a few weeks head start on cover crop establishment. 

“Once you get sunlight to the ground, something is going to start growing, whether it’s weeds or cover crops,” Roth points out. 

Rye is a pretty forgiving cover crop when it comes to aerial application, Roth adds. But there are a few rules to follow:

  • Use enough seed. Roth notes that farmers often want application rates from 30 to 60 pounds per acre, but 50 pounds per acre or more seems to be the sweet spot that ensures the best success. “If we do 30 to 40 pounds, we’ll usually add some turnip or radish,” he says. However, the higher the rate, the more expensive it will be to aerially apply the seed, he adds. In sum, count on using 25% to 50% more seed on an aerial application compared with a ground rig.
  • Is rain on the way? In a perfect world, the time to fly on cover crop seed is right before a rain, Berns says. A good rain helps encourage seed-to-soil contact, which is essential in cover crop establishment. According to Iowa NRCS, if moisture is not forthcoming, the seeds could be lost to insect damage or animal predation. 
  • Watch residual herbicides. Roth has seen aerially applied cover crops succeed in one field, and founder in a neighboring field. That’s due to herbicide programs in the cash crop. Be sure that residual herbicides won’t affect the cover crop you plan to apply.  
  • Don’t expect miracles. Pilots are dropping a tiny seed from 40 feet in the air, so by its nature, aerial application of cover crops isn’t an exact science. “You’re doing something out of the norm,” Green Cover’s Berns says. “Nothing in farming is that easy.” 

Waiting until after harvest to seed covers with a grain drill is actually Berns’ preference. Aerial application is often hit-and-miss and dependent upon timing. Too early, and the covers will stall. Too late, and you may as well plant with a drill and improve odds of success, he says. 

What about soybeans?

Aerial application of cover crops into standing soybeans works, but it will require you to be a tad more patient. Wait until the soybeans begin to turn yellow, and the first few leaves drop. That’s the ideal time to fly on the cover crop. Leaves that fall after the cover crop is broadcast will serve as mulch, and conserve moisture.

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