August 11, 2022

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Cover crop experiments come with some surprises | Crops

3 min read

Some cover crop experiments are planned as part of a farmer’s management strategy. Others are part of long-term, structured university studies.

And other times they are not part of plan, but because a farmer is faced with a challenge.

Initially Craig Swartz had intended to plant his cereal rye in the fall of 2021, but an unexpected 10 inches of rainfall in Livingston County put the kibosh on that.

No cover crop planting was possible in October, so he planned to try frost seeding cereal rye and crimson clover in March.

Again weather conditions were not favorable. He was greeted with 6 to 8 inches of snow this time and freezing temperatures on his Emington farm in eastern Illinois

“We tried and tried. By March 15, we gave up,” Swartz said.

Plan A to plant in October was nixed by rain, plan B to plant in March was ditched because of snow. But Swartz isn’t giving up. He intends to get the cover crop planted this fall.

This is his third year participating in the Precision Conservation Management program. He has had some success and learned some things. An oat and radish mix worked well.

He has also found through application experiments that planting rye seed with a grain drill isn’t for him. He prefers spreading the seed and incorporating it in one pass of vertical tillage. He already does one such tillage pass, so this application method doesn’t add cost or environmental stress.

Comparatively, Eric Miller’s cover crop practices have been more routine over the last decade.

His crop rotation, including cover crops, is part of a multi-year study with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His rotation includes corn, soybeans, wheat and cereal rye after corn as a cover crop. The long-term study will compare results with and without cover crops.

In the rotation, he plants soybeans after wheat is harvested for a double crop.

“We like the wheat because it is a cover crop that pays,” he said.

After wheat harvest, he usually plants soybeans in early July on his east central Illinois farm.

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Earlier this season, with cooler temperatures, wheat grew slowly, but it started maturing quickly during the heatwave in the first full week of June.

“It looks really good now,” he said on June 13.

With current prices, wheat looks to be profitable this year, and it is early enough to still get a good crop of soybeans, he said.

Tony Stierwalt, a Sadorus, Illinois, farmer, was happy his soybeans had a little shade during a heat wave of above 90 degree temperatures in southern Champaign County in early June.

“A lot of people slow down,” he said of people driving by and looking curiously when he plants into standing cereal rye that is two or three feet tall.

This year he planted his soybeans on May 10 and terminated the rye on May 15. In early June, the residue provided shade during the heatwave.

The rye keeps moisture in the soil and keeps soil temperatures lower. When he measured soil temperature with the cover crop, it measured 89 degrees. Without it, the soil was 118 degrees. The soil shuts down at about 90 degrees, so the cooler temperatures helps the soybeans, Stierwalt said

The cover crops are also good at providing weed control. In comparisons so far, yields have been the same with or without cover crop. But he has saved the cost of a pass of herbicides in fields with cover crops which helps the profit potential.

This year he has about 300 acres of cover crops.

“I see the benefits,” he said. “I cut out a whole pass of herbicides.”

Stierwalt says he gets excited about what the practice does for soil structure and the environment in the long run.

“It works for me,” he said.

He is happy with cover crops before soybeans but is still working on how to best manage them before corn. Strip tilling seems to work best.

The fifth-generation farmer, on both sides of the family, is interested in research done with legume cover crops including hairy vetch and peas which can fix nitrogen. Eventually, planting legumes before corn might be able to reduce nitrogen costs.

“But there is still a lot to figure out about this,” he said.

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