By Lynn Betts
This year's corn is tasseling and soybeans are blooming, and it's time already to be thinking about next year's cover crop. That's the thing about cover crops—every day they're growing––without interfering with your corn or soybean crop––is another day they have to build and protect your soil. So, yes, it's time to be thinking about next year's cover crop—right now.
If you've studied cover crops for several years like Guthrie County farmer Don McCool did for five years, it may be time to pull the trigger. Line up your seed supplier, and an aerial applicator if that's your choice of seeding, now. If you plan to seed by air or with a high-boy, you'll want to seed cover crops in August or early September at the latest. It can be somewhat later for soybeans. If you plan to drill or use your planter to seed cover crops after harvest, get your seed lined up and be sure your machinery is ready. That's because those cover crops need as much time as they can get in the fall to grow before winter sets in, and you'll want to seed them the same day you harvest.
McCool, who farms in partnership with his brother Jeff, aerial seeded cereal rye on 420 acres––about 20% of their corn and soybean acres––near Bayard September 9 last year. "I think we're seeing some change in the soil in just the first year of cover crops because of the root mass they leave behind and because all those microorganisms in the soil are getting something to eat," he says.
"We think we've done our homework. This practice will definitely build organic matter. Maybe you can't do it overnight, but you sure can do it faster with cover crops," says McCool, a 15-year no-tiller.
McCool says financial incentives are still available for cover crops, and that's another reason to plan ahead now for next year's cover crop. Check now with your local soil conservation office for any incentives.
If you're renting land, it's also time to have discussions with landlords on the benefits and costs of cover crops. Since they build and protect soil, the inclusion of cover crops is likely to be met positively by landlords.
To McCool, cover crops may be a transition into a better way to farm intensively and still protect and improve his soil. "We just can't do that with straight corn and beans. I'm hoping cover crop mixes will be the key to a way to continuously build our soil," the long-time conservationist says.
For more detailed information, be sure to look for the story "Plan Now for Cover Crops" in the July issue of Wallaces Farmer.