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).

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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.

March 24 Field Day Reminder

This is a reminder that we will be hosting a Cover Crops Field Day tomorrow, Thursday, March 24 from 9 a.m. to Noon (doors will open at 8:30 for coffee and donuts). The program will begin at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds Annex Building (the small building near the north entrance) in Lebanon, Indiana. If weather permits we will walk out and see soil pits in the County Education and Demonstration Area.

The forecast calls for rain and there is a chance that the weather will be bad enough that we’ll stay indoors. We dug the pits this morning and took a lot of pictures. We’ll also have some soil cores on hand. Even if it rains we’ll have a lot to talk about and will have the program as scheduled. We’ll just be talking about the pits from pictures rather than standing in the rain. If you are planning to attend please call the SWCD at 765-482-6355, ext. 134 or e-mail svaughn@co.boone.in.us.

You can find a flyer with additional information here.

The soil pits are dug!
The soil pits are dug!

Cover Crop Planting Day – Mostly

Curt Emanuel, Extension Educator, Purdue Extension – Boone County

On Tuesday, September 29 we planted three of the five cover crop “treatments” we’ll be incorporating into the project. Those treatments are:


  • Cereal Rye
  • Annual Ryegrass
  • Annual Ryegrass-Oats-Crimson Clover
  • Tillage (Oilseed) Radish-Oats
  • Late-planted (about November 1) Cereal Rye

Rain interrupted us before we could get the Radish-Oats mix planted and we’ll be planting some cereal rye later. Hopefully we’ll get the oats and radish in the ground by the end of this week. We performed no tillage and made no herbicide applications before planting. All of the cover crops are planted in 40′ strips and we did a replication (planted each treatment in two areas of the field). I’ll load a map in the near future.

This will make for an interesting educational opportunity. It’s pretty late to be planting radish so we may not get much top growth but it may surprise people when we dig pits next spring to see how much root growth went on underground. It really is amazing to see plots where very little vegetation came up where they have root systems two or three feet deep. It’s a nice example of how much good these cover crops may be doing even when we don’t see evidence of it from the surface.

Cover Crop Planting
Boone County SWCD Resource Conservationist Brian Daggy planting cover crops with a drill.

EDIT: Oats and radish were planted by Brian on October 1, 2015.