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Top 10 changes in ag: Cover crops and seed treatments

Pity the person who has to compile the NFL Films' top 10 list.

Sure, there are clear-cut winners like the number one “Weather Football Game.” That's the sub-zero frostbitten 1967 Ice Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.

For every no-brainer like this, though, there are categories like the All-Time Top 10 Quarterbacks. Would it be a steely Johnny Unitas, a scrambling Fran Tarkenton, or a steady Payton Manning? That debate could consume several lifetimes for football fans.

It's a bit that way when Successful Farming editors decided to list the top 10 crop technologies. Compiling this list sounds easy. It wasn't.

Undoubtedly there are some technologies that you feel should have made the list. Present impact and potential future impact were considered. That's how a relatively minor concept like cover crops – number 10 in this issue – made the list with its great potential for the future. The rankings, which will continue in the November and December issues, are open to agreements and disagreements.

In the meantime, enjoy and assess the impact that these and other ag changes have had on your farm.

10. Cover crops

Just a few years ago, cover crops mainly resided in the organic farming arena. They're still a twinkle in the agronomic eye of many farmers. Just 18% of surveyed farmers in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana have ever used a cover crop.

Still, intense interest in cover crops and what they could bring to future crop production prompted their entry into this top 10 list.

“There is a lot of momentum for cover crops in the Midwest,” says Jeremy Singer, research agronomist for the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (NLAE).

Cover crops like vetch, radishes, winter wheat, rye, and lupines require a twist in conventional thinking. They aren't harvested for feed or grain like cash crops such as corn or soybeans. Farmers, instead, seed cover crops during or after the year's primary crop. Cover crops provide a cover until herbicides kill them in the current cash crop year.

Here are ways cover crops aid cash crops:

● Curb soil erosion.

● Boost soil organic matter.

● Capture nutrients. They can garner 20 to 40 pounds per acre of nitrogen, 2 to 5 pounds per acre of phosphorus, and 30 pounds per acre of potassium.

● Increase water infiltration and soil aeration. Cover crops help cash crops break through the devastating plow pan of compacted soils.

“We have dug up soybean roots that went 5 inches deep before going horizontal,” says Dave Robison, a cover crop and forage agronomist with The Cisco Companies. “By planting a cover crop of oats, radishes, and peas, we broke through that hardpan and had soybean roots in the 30-inch range.”

Cover crops require a shift to year-round thinking. “When we grow just corn, we have live biology and photosynthesis for just about six months,” says Robison. “When we harvest corn with no cover crop, the field starts to deteriorate. We are not building soil during that time.”

Cover crops fit better in some areas than others. In wheat-growing regions of Michigan, for example, radishes can follow wheat during a fallow period in late July or August, says Singer.

Cover crop choices are more limited in states like Iowa, where corn and soybeans are in fields the bulk of the growing season. “We are looking at winter wheat or rye,” says Singer. “They germinate in cool weather in the fall and are winter hardy.”

Reduced cash crop yields are a concern with cover crops. In Iowa, all data show that cover crops won't reduce soybean yields.

Not so with corn. “There is potential to lose up to 3% of grain yield if corn follows an overwintering cover crop,” says Singer.

Farmers also incur initial seeding costs, ranging from $12 to $30 per acre or more. Still, fertility savings and other benefits can offset this. “With cover crops, we are building soils instead of allowing soils to degrade,” says Robison.

9: Seed treatments

No football team owner would send a high-dollar athlete into action without a protective helmet and pads.

Nor should you if your seed needs protection from early-season stressors like fungal diseases and early-season insects.

“It make a lot of sense for growers to protect that high value with a seed treatment,” says Keith Vodrazka, product manager, marketing and portfolio management for Bayer CropScience.

Farmers used to consider seed treatments as seed insurance. “In the old days, using a fungicide seed treatment was to minimize the probability of replanting,” says Palle Pedersen, technical brand asset lead for Syngenta Seed Care.

No more. Now, seed treatments have stepped up to become a key input. In 2011, 65% of soybean seed planted in the U.S. was treated; 41% was treated with both a fungicide and insecticide, says Mark Jirak, portfolio manager for Syngenta Seed Care. By 2015, projections are that the majority – 59% – will be treated with an insecticide and fungicide and just 12% with the fungicide only.

Corn is no newcomer to seed treatments, and historically it has been treated with a pink-tinged fungicide. Still, it's taking a leap into the future with improved fungicide products and also insecticide seed treatments.

A new twist for both corn and soybeans is nematicides. In 2011, about 7% of the corn U.S. farmers planted was treated with a nematicide. By 2015, it's expected that 5% of soybeans will be treated with a nematicide, says Jirak.

Bayer CropScience launched Poncho/Votivo in 2010 in corn, and it's slated for soybeans in 2012. It doesn't directly kill nematodes, but it controls them by blocking root receptor sites that nematodes use to find roots. It controls a wide range of nematodes in corn and soybeans, including soybean cyst nematode.

Syngenta's nematode control product that also contains insecticide and fungicide-control products is Avicta Complete Corn. In soybeans, Avicta Complete Beans included nematode, insecticide, and nematicide seed treatments. Although it helps control SCN, it's also important that farmers continue to plant SCN-resistant soybeans as an SCN control measure, says Pedersen.

Biological inoculants also are increasing in use for soybeans.

“On my farm, most inoculants increase yield, but some give a higher return on investment,” says Ed Winkle, a Martinsville, Ohio, crop consultant. “There are new strains of inoculants coming out that farmers really need to consider.”

As with any technology, it's important to use it accordingly. “Not every market needs a fully loaded seed treatment,” says Randy Longest, Monsanto seed treatment product manager. To aim products where they are best suited, Monsanto decoupled its Acceleron seed treatment from its Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans in 2010.

“We wanted to offer growers a choice,” Longest says.

Coming in November

Read about changes 8 and 7: 

Fungicides and implement guidance

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