Productive soils are key to maximizing soybean yields and farm profitability. Cover crops are a great way to enhance soil health, maintain fertility and improve overall plant performance. With more farmers looking into sustainable ways to enhance their farm management plans, cover crops provide a solid solution.
Alan Sundermeier is an Ohio State University Extension educator in Wood County who specializes in helping farmers start growing cover crops. Through research supported by the soybean checkoff, he’s seen overwhelming evidence of their benefits. This includes farm survey data pointing to potential yield gains.
“By covering the soil when cash crops aren’t growing, cover crops allow farmers to utilize sunlight, water and nutrients that otherwise would be wasted,” explained Sundermeier. “They also help reduce soil erosion through living roots and residue, suppress early spring weed growth and encourage soybean emergence by reducing soil compaction.”
Nate Douridas, farm manager for the Molly Caren Ag Center and the Farm Science Review (FSR), agrees. He and his team began experimenting with cover crops five years ago to protect the soil from erosion and expand conservation efforts. They now have a strong system that also provides learning opportunities for FSR attendees.
As a farm manager, Douridas knows the cost of planting cover crops. There’s equipment, time, seed and evaluation. That’s why both he and Alan recommend making a plan before sowing the first seeds. Here are their steps for getting started with cover crops.
Do Your Research
Talk with an experienced cover crop farmer in your area or attend a local production meeting to learn more about your options. Sundermeier recommends attending the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference and reviewing these online resources:
- Ohio State University Extension Ag BMPs
- Midwest Cover Crop Council
- Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Cover Crops Topic Room
Make A Plan
Think about your overall goal and how cover crops fit into your cash crop rotation. Consider any new equipment or custom services you’ll need, and don’t forget to develop a plan for termination. A roller/crimper, mower, herbicide, grazing, or tillage can be used to control cover crop growth before or during planting.
Select Your Seed
Talk with your seed dealer to select the right varieties or hybrids to fit your plan. This may involve choosing an early maturing soybean that can be harvested in September, giving you plenty of time to get back in the field to seed the cover crop.
There’s no need to go big or go home in this situation. Douridas started small with 30-60 acre fields in targeted areas and expanded from there. Sundermeier also recommends planting one field first to understand how to establish and terminate cover crops in your soils, climate and cropping system.
Mix & Match
According to Sundermeier, farmers in a corn/soybean rotation can start simply with cereal rye planted in the fall of the corn crop year. Your dealer may also have ideas for cover crop seeds. Douridas started with a basic winter wheat thanks to dealer recommendations. Over time, he’s also planted Lynx variety peas and hairy vetch. Another helpful resource is the cover crop selector tool from the Midwest Cover Crops Council.
Grow Your Row
Don’t be afraid of wide rows. Douridas said they started with 7.5 inch rows and eventually expanded to 15 inches. Examine your planter attachments to see what’s possible and be open to experimenting.
It may take some time to find the right balance of sustainability and profitability for your farm, but cover crops are worth trying. Now is a great time to do your research and start working on a plan.