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View from the Cab: Farming with cover

By: Kent Casson

I have jumped on the cover crop bandwagon.

My first field of cover crops is getting established as we speak. I have spent the last 10 years covering meetings on the benefits of cover crops and finally decided to give the conservation practice a try on my own operation.

Cereal rye is my cover crop of choice this year since it seems to be the simplest and you really can’t mess it up. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education website describes cover crops as a long-term investment in improved farm management and soil health.

Some believe they pay for themselves in the first year while others feel it takes a few years for a positive return. The site defines cover crops as plants primarily used to improve soil health, slow erosion, suppress weeds, control pests and improve water availability.

There are some significant numbers to report when it comes to the use of cover crops between 2012 and 2017. Eight states more than doubled acreage during this time while the number of farms planting cover crops increased 15.2 percent. Also, cover crops were planted on 15.4 million acres in 2017 which is a 50 percent increase over five years.

Increasing soil fertility is the big idea behind cover crops as they are used to manage various soil micronutrients and macronutrients. The impact of covers on nitrogen management tends to get the most attention since nitrogen is usually the most limiting nutrient in crop production.

I am really looking forward to the weed prevention aspect of this conservation practice as thick cover crop plant stands compete well with weeds during the growth period and are known to prevent germinated weed seeds from reproducing and completing their life cycle. Weed seed germination can be greatly reduced if the crop is flattened on the soil surface, forming a defense shield. Experts say this reduces light transmission to weed seeds.

Some growers plant “green” right into the standing cover crops in the spring while others terminate the crop first by spraying it with a herbicide then planting into the area. I am still up in the air on that one but may try some different methods come spring to see what works best for my operation.

It is all about experimenting until you find the right solution in agriculture. Let’s hope my years of paying attention and covering ag meetings for the Central Illinois Farm Network has paid off.


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