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The great crop rotation cover-up

The wind can sure howl in north-central Kansas. And, the region's farmers are certainly not strangers to drought conditions that can choke life from just about any crop.

These are just a couple of the reasons Josh Lloyd tries to do "what Mother Nature does" on his farm near Clay Center, Kansas. That means a no-till system combined with the planting of a polyculture of cover crops -- turnips, radishes and canola -- in rotation with his sorghum and wheat acres.

"The reason we have residue is to create a mulch. It helps save moisture and protects the soil from erosion. The reason I went in and planted a cover crop is it's going to be 9 months until a crop is planted here again, and I want to build and maintain the soil and protect it from erosion while keeping the biology active," Lloyd says. "The reason I went with different things is to get some diversity. Mother Nature creates diversity, and I'm just trying to mimic, especially through no-till, what Mother Nature does."

After his winter wheat comes off in June and July, Lloyd leaves the stubble until late summer and early fall, when he seeds the cover crop mixture of canola, radishes and turnips. The latter two have specific functions in the mixture in balancing witih the wheat and canola.

"I went with the turnip and radish because of how they might cycle nutrients and build soil differently compared to the wheat and canola," Lloyd says. "The radish and turnip are going to have a lot bigger root, go a lot deeper and leave a pocket in the soil."

These are all key benefits of any well-balanced cover crop system like Lloyd's, says Dan Towery, certified crop adviser (CCA) and conservation specialist with Ag Conservation Solutions in Lafayette, Indiana. In addition to maintaining a healthier soil structure, Towery says an effective system of cover crops will help trim fertilizer costs while still boosting yields.

"Cover crops offer many different benefits -- they break up compaction, they scavenge or fix nitrogen, reduce soil erosion and improve soil biology," Towery says. "These can lead to reduced fertilizer inputs and higher yields."

In his area, Towery, also an Agriculture Online 2009 Crop Tech Tour correspondent, says annual ryegrass and cereal rye are common cover crops. But, these work better when in a cover crop "cocktail," says Agriculture Online Crop Talk member NoTill1825, who farms in north-central Indiana.

"Annual ryegrass has been hit-and-miss. The best stand we've had came after wheat and was seeded in early September," he says. "But, kill it when it is actively growing before it gets to eight inches tall. Might take two passes with chemical to kill it.

"I'm pursuing tillage radish mixed with a fibrous rooting plant like oats, rye or sunflowers," NoTill1825 adds. "I'm also looking at cover crop 'cocktails' that seem to be whatever is left in the barn thrown out in late summer to scavenge for nitrogen and break up density layers."

The wind can sure howl in north-central Kansas. And, the region's farmers are certainly not strangers to drought conditions that can choke life from just about any crop.

Adding more crops to any rotation also adds more management. Because of the typical timeframe for the growth of cover crops -- fall through early spring -- it's important to allow ample time for planting and burndown. The first step can often be a tall order in what's always a hectic time on the farm, says Martinsville, Ohio, CCA and operator of HyMark Consulting, LLC, Ed Winkle.



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