2018 Spring Planting

We applied a burn-down herbicide application on May 8 to terminate the cover crops and control other weeds. On May 9 we planted a group 2.7 soybean. This included planting with a drill into standing cereal rye, wheat and annual ryegrass. This has become a fairly standard practice among experienced cover croppers. Sometimes the cover crops are controlled after planting with an early post application. The standing cover crops do not usually created a problem planting into – you just need to make sure your planter is set up correctly. As the cover decomposes it creates a mulch layer which can be a big help keeping soils cooler and retaining moisture during hot, dry years.

Keep in mind that with corn you can have a problem with a high carbon to nitrogen ratio creating a deficiency situation early in the growing season, particularly with cereal rye, but this is not an issue with soybeans.

Early May was a very dry period for this part of Indiana. I took some pictures on May 25 (not included). The beans were up but barely and I was a little worried about complete termination. We received some rain last week, about 1.5″, and things changed completely with good elimination of the cover crops and what looks like a nice stand of soybeans.

Hopefully with the shorter season beans and an early May planting we’ll be able to get our fall covers in place in a more timely manner than we’ve been able to do the last 2 years. For the start of the growing season things look very good.

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Soybeans planted into the Annual Ryegrass/Hairy Vetch/Crimson Clover/Rape strip. The growth is from annual ryegrass. Use caution with this one – once annual ryegrass goes to seed it can present a problem down the road. Picture taken June 4.
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Soybeans drilled into standing cereal rye. Picture taken June 4.
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March 20 Cover Crops Field Day

The spring Boone County Cover Crops Field Day was held on Tuesday, March 20 at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds. This was a little earlier than usual but we wanted to avoid the local school district spring breaks.

We had a good turnout for this and while it was pretty chilly, at least we didn’t have any rain. Or snow. The Indiana Soybean Alliance helped us out by sponsoring lunch for the day.

Stephanie McClain, Indiana NRCS Soil Health Specialist was the first speaker discussing, “What is Soil Health and Why Does it Matter?” She walked through various aspects of soil health such as organic matter and its role, the benefits of increased soil microbial activity, soil structure, and more. She also did a slake test comparing a no-till soil with one which was conventionally tilled with the usual results.

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NRCS Soil Health Specialist Stephanie McClain received some help conducting a slake test

The next topic was a discussion of adjusting herbicide programs to account for cover crops followed by visits to the plots.

At the plots, NRCS Soil Scientists Mike Wigginton walked us through the various cover crop strips. Unfortunately, even though this was the first day of spring (yes, it really WAS a spring field day!) the weather had been cold enough that only the two cereal rye plots showed substantial growth. Just a little barley, wheat, and annual ryegrass were starting to emerge/break dormancy in other strips. For this reason we did not dig soil pits. Instead Mike used his spade to turn some soil over. He was able to show how the cover crops and no-till were having an effect on soil color, texture, and compaction after just three years of cover crops by comparing it with a conventionally-tilled field next to ours.

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NRCS Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton at the plots with the group.

After returning from the plot visits we had lunch, sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance followed by a presentation by some seed companies. They discussed cover crop selection, planting methods, and how and where to purchase seed.

I mentioned that our plots border a conventionally-tilled field. We took soil from this field and from ours and did another slake test.

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On the left is soil from a conventionally-tilled field. On the right is soil from our plots. Note that after just three years of no-till and cover crops our soil is much more stable. Less has broken down into the water. This soil is much more resistant to erosion, as well as having other benefits.

While we didn’t dig soil pits Mike did take some soil cores. He found evidence of living roots down to 34″ deep in the cereal rye strip.

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Following the presentation by the seed company representatives those who wanted to earn Pesticide Credits could stay for an additional program.

This was another good, successful field day. Though cold, at least we stayed dry. Thank you to everyone who helped out with the field day and for all of those who have supported the project the last three years.

A month later and we’re still waiting for warmer weather (it was snowing yesterday, April 16) but look forward to terminating the cover crops, planting soybeans, and seeing what the 2018 growing season may bring. I hope to be able to post more frequently in the coming year.

NOTE: I used to be able to post images as thumbnails where you could click on it for the full-size picture. This feature does not appear to be available, or if it is, there is a different way of doing so. If anyone has any tips, feel free to e-mail me. I briefly looked through the help topics and didn’t see anything other than setting a theme image for a post which is not what I want to do (or don’t think it is).

The 2017 Growing Season

Apologies for not posting recently. With spring 2018 coming up it seems as if a review of 2017 is in order.

This was a difficult spring in Central Indiana. We first terminated the cover crops in mid-April and then it turned cold and wet so we made an additional herbicide application in late May. We were finally able to plant corn on June 2, 2017. The growing season got off to an OK start with decent rains and fairly warm temperatures. Later it turned dry with very little rain in August. The rains returned in early September.

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Corn on June 21.

I went out and looked at the field in late July and there were some things worth mentioning. Keep in mind that for this project we plant cover crops in 40-foot wide strips. I wouldn’t say that corn looked better or worse in a strip but it did look like some strips were further along. We planted the entire field the same day, using the same equipment and the same settings however on July 31 some strips were well along in silking while the Oats and tillage radish strip in particular had just started to tassel and plants were about a foot shorter.

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July 31, 2017. Note the strip of shorter corn starting at about the center of the picture and to the left. This is a strip planted to oats and tillage radish.
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A closer view showing the difference in height and maturity between strips. In this case oats and tillage radish on the left, straight no-till on the right.

This continued through the growing season. I went into the field on August 31 to look at maturity and black layer formation (maturity) was just starting in two strips while in the no-till and Oats/Tillage Radish strips the corn was in early dent – just leaving dough stage. If I’d had no other information to go on I’d have said those strips were planted 10-14 days later than the others. Again, the corn didn’t look better or worse, just at different maturity stages. I can’t begin to reach any conclusions about that.

The plots were harvested on October 17. There were some yield differences between strips, much more significant than we saw the previous year with soybeans. Our thoughts are that because some corn matured later it was able to take advantage of September rains after a very dry August. The overall yield was 171.4 bushels which we were fairly happy with. It is also interesting that one of the cereal rye strips had a lower yield which is not surprising – planting corn into cereal rye can be a problem due to Nitrogen availability. However the other one did not.

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2017 strip yields for corn. Notice the differences in both yield and moisture level between strips.

This continues to be a learning experience for us and while field observations were interesting it’s hard to see anything that could be considered actionable. As with 2016, yields were comparable in the strips planted to cover crops compared with those in straight no-till, with the exception of the two northernmost strips.

New Research Shows Planting Cover Crops can Aid in the Destruction of Weed Seeds

I was aware of many benefits of cover crops but recent research has found one I did not know about.

Purdue University Entomologist Ian Kaplan and Carmen Blubaugh, who earned her doctorate at Purdue and is now a postdoctoral research associate at Washington State University discovered that cover crops provide habitat for beetles and rodents that feed on weed seed and prevent it from becoming part of a “seed bank” in the soil. They found that fields planted to cover crops had three to four times as many weed seeds eliminated due to feeding as those without cover crops.

Additional information may be found in this Morning Ag Clips news release: Cover crops increase destruction of weed seed.

Soil Health Nexus – New Resource

There is a new resource with information about soil health which may be of interest to the public as well as farmers. The Soil Health Nexus was started with a grant from the North Central Region Water Network. It pools the knowledge of 12 land grant universities. Its initial focus is on manure and manure management but it appears they will expand beyond this at some point.

The website states that the goals of the Soil Health Nexus are:

  • Maintain and grow our inventory of soil health research, training, and educational resources.
  • Produce regional publications, videos, webinars, and blogs relevant to soil health and manure research and management practices.
  • Develop regional research projects to promote conservation systems and practices such as cover crops, and no-till technologies that will lead to the improvement of soil and water quality in the region.
  • Form a research and education technical committee that will serve as a regional infrastructure for future development of new science in the area of soil health and manure management.
  • Continuing to grow participation among land—grant researchers, Extension staff and educators, and other partners to ensure access to locally relevant soil health and manure information across the North Central Region.
  • Build capacity in each state’s Land Grant system to deliver soil health training, research, and resources.

The Nexus has various informational articles and a blog. So far blog posts have been focused on the role of manure and manure management in soil health but should have additional content in the near future.

Report – March 30 Cover Crops Workshop and Field Day

We had a great day March 30 for our Cover Crops Workshop and Field Day. We had 32 in attendance, 24 farmers and while we had to work around thunderstorms we did find a window where we could go out and look over the plots – unfortunately the soil pits had filled up with water from the rains.

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Field Day Attendees

The morning program included a presentation from Corey Lacey. Corey is a Purdue University graduate student working with Dr, Shalamar Armstrong on whether nitrogen taken up and stored in cover crops is available the following crop year. Research is ongoing with this but the ultimate answer is, “some is available but it will take more research to determine exactly how much.” Hopefully at some point there will be enough research where this impact can be determined more precisely. We also discussed termination, herbicide carryover, and how this can impact cover crop selection.

As there was a morning window when it wasn’t raining, we took advantage of the situation to head out to the plots. NRCS Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton discussed what he found at the plots and in the soil pits with attendees.

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NRSC Soil Scientist Mike Wigginton discussing the plots.

The pits had filled up with water from a combination of water infiltration (it’s been a wet spring here) and rain the night before so these pictures are from the day before when we dug the pits. I’m focusing on root depth because while top growth is nice to look at and offers some benefits, beneath the soil surface is where things are really happening. It may be difficult to see the roots themselves in the pictures so look for the golf tees. Keep in mind that cover crop roots:

  • Increase water holding capacity and infiltration by forming channels
  • Provide a pathway for crop roots to travel, allowing more access to water during dry periods
  • Provide habitat for soil microbes
  • Through decomposition improve soil organic matter and increase nutrient availability
  • Help break up soil compaction layers
  • In the case of legumes provide nitrogen fixation

The cereal rye plot had some good spring growth going on and there were very few weeds present. Mike found roots to 32 inches deep, down to the glacial till layer. As you can see from the picture, the pit started to fill with water running right above that dense till layer as soon as it was dug.

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Roots in the Cereal Rye strip.

The second strip was planted to barley, rape and hairy vetch. The growth wasn’t quite as lush as the cereal rye strip but it was coming. Mike found living roots in the soil pit down to 26 inches, right above the glacial till layer.

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Roots at 26″ in the barley/rape/vetch strip.

The final strip with spring growth was planted to annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, crimson clover and rape. The rape and vetch were just getting going, the clover was coming in well but was still fairly small and the annual ryegrass had a lot of growth. Mike found a lot of roots in this pit, down to 36″.

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Quite a few roots here, down to 36″.

One of the interesting “finds” was that even though short, crimson clover had already started nodulation meaning it was starting to add nitrogen to the soil. I have no idea if this will be a significant amount for the corn we’ll be planting but it will be something to look for this fall during harvest (as I type this we are planning to terminate on April 17 if the weather holds).

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If you look closely you can see the nodules forming in the roots of this crimson clover plant.

We always plant one strip to oats and tillage radish because this is a great mix for farmers just getting started with cover crops. Oats and radish both winter kill so it takes away any termination concerns. While you lose some benefit because of no spring growth, it still provides quite a bit. We did not dig deep pits for this or our “check” strip with no cover crops as we would not have found living roots. Keep in mind that last fall we planted the strips on October 18, well past the recommended September 15 date for both of these, based on the Midwest Cover Crops Council Selector Tool. The oats and radish did come up last fall but were pretty small. However even with this situation, the weed population was significantly less than in the straight no-till plots. The main weeds we found were dandelion, chickweed and purple deadnettle. Evidently, even though we planted later than recommended, the cover crops inhibited the germination of the winter annual weeds.

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The left side is our strip without cover crops, on the right the oats/radish strip.

While we are not arguing that planting cover crops means you can do without weed control the next year (is anyone arguing this?) since purple deadnettle is a host for soybean cyst nematode (SCN), this mix, even planted late, may provide an advantage when planted ahead of soybeans.

While our plots are for demonstration and education, not research, I did find myself thinking it may be worth doing some weed counts in the future.

Following the plot tour we had a farmer panel featuring Zach Cain, a Montgomery County farmer, Clint Orr, a Clinton County farmers and Justin Mohler, who farms in Boone and Clinton counties. We had a good discussion. Much of it was on specifics such as planting equipment and setup, mixes that did and didn’t work, termination issues – really the nitty-gritty of cover crops.

For the final presentation of the day Brian Daggy shared information from Rulon Farms discussing the 321% return on investment they believe they have received through the use of cover crops.

This was a good day. I hope everyone learned a lot. On the evaluations several farmers said they intended to start planting cover crops and others mentioned new mixes they would try. Thank you to Boone County Farm Bureau for sponsoring lunch and, as always, to the many farmers, agribusinesses, lenders, etc., who have assisted with this project. I look forward to our next field day, sometime this fall.

Spring Cover Crops Field Day March 30

Our next Cover Crops Field Day Will be held Thursday, March 30 from 8:30 a.m. to around 3:15 p.m. The program will be held in the Annex Building at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds, 1300 E 100 S, Lebanon, IN.

Speakers for the day include Mike Wigginton from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Corey Lacey from Purdue Agronomy, Brian Daggy from Boone County SWCD, Curt Emanuel from Boone County Extension and a farmer panel featuring Bruce Guernsey, Zach King and Clint Orr. Topics will include a discussion of the financial benefits of cover crop, species selection, herbicide management, how cover crops can impact available soil nitrogen, and touring cover crop plots to discuss production systems and impacts on soil health.

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The program has been approved as a Private Applicator Recertification Program (PARP). Lunch, sponsored by the Boone County Farm Bureau, will be provided. There is no cost except for a $10 fee for those seeking pesticide credit. Pre-registration is requested to help with meal planning. To register call the Boone County SWCD at 765-482-6355, ext, 134 or e-mail Sheryl Vaughn at the SWCD. Much of the program will take place outside at the field plots so participants should dress accordingly.