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.

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.
Soybeans drilled into standing cereal rye. Picture taken June 4.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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″.

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).

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.

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.

2016 Harvest

We harvested the plot on Tuesday, October 11. Total yield was 60 bushels per acre, not bad considering it was planted on June 1.

SWCD Supervisor Chris Branaman volunteered to harvest the plot for us.
SWCD Supervisor Chris Branaman volunteered to harvest the plot for us.

Even though harvested acreage was only a little over 7 acres, there were a couple of interesting items. First, as can be seen from the table at the bottom of the page, the presence of cover crops made little difference in yield. As this was the first year for cover crops, this was not a surprise. Check back in a few years to see if this changes.

We had weed issues on the southern side of the field. We don’t know why but the two southern strips, planted to cereal rye and annual ryegrass last fall, had significantly more weeds. However the northern strips using those two cover crops did not. We’re not sure if there was a problem spraying or what however yields for those two strips were lower.

The weeds – mostly grass – on the right covered two strip treatments. The rest of the field was relatively weed-free.

We had volunteer oilseed radish. The two oats/radish strips had some very lush plants. This also appears to have affected yields though not as severely as the weeds did. We don’t know why this happened. We planted last fall about two weeks after the recommended time but radish did germinate and emerge. This may have been from seeds which did not germinate last fall. It may also have been plants that did not winter kill. Last winter was extremely warm and even though oilseed radish typically winter kills, some may have survived. 1 Whatever the cause, it shows how a cover crop can become a weed.

Oilseed radish
Oilseed radish “infestation.”
Our Purdue Extension intern holding a radish we “harvested” before cutting soybeans.









Most of the field looked good. We harvested by running a combine with a 20′ bean head down the center of each 40′ strip and stopped to measure from the yield monitor. This is not terribly scientific but we were looking for differences between strips, not absolute yield numbers.

Harvest in progress. We ran the combine down the center of each cover crop
Harvest in progress. We ran the combine down the center of each cover crop “treatment” to measure yield.

The following table shows the yields for the cover crop strips.

Click for a larger image to see yields.
Click for a larger image to see yields.
Map showing the cover crop strips planted in fall, 2016.
Map showing the cover crop strips planted in fall, 2016.

Our next step is to plant our 2016 cover crops. We also plan on soil testing the field. We do not expect to see much change in soil characteristics after just one year but plan to monitor this on a regular basis going forward.

1 Between December 1, 2015 and April 1, 2016 the lowest temperature in Whitestown, about 2 miles south of this field, was 19.7 degrees according to the National Weather Service. In fact, temperatures fell below freezing only in January and February. This is extremely warm for this area.

SARE Cover Crops Innovators Series

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) has funded the development of a series of videos featuring 23 farmers around the country discussing their use of cover crops and the benefits they’ve seen. Two Indiana and several Midwestern farmers are among those included.

The videos were produced by Kurtis Harms of the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service. You can find a link to the videos below.

Cover Crops Innovators Video Series


One of the most important issues related to cover crops is termination. Cover crops are great – until they compete with cash crops for nutrients, water, sunlight, space, etc. In a normal field situation a farmer will plant one cover crop or at least a single mix. In our case we had four different cover crop “treatments” to contend with. Despite this, we didn’t have any trouble terminating the cover crops in the entire area with a single herbicide mix.

cover crops terminated
Terminated cover crops in the plot area. Picture taken by Curt Emanuel on May 5, 2016, nearly three weeks after spraying.

The herbicide application we used was a burn-down of 1.5 lbs active ingredient(AI) glyphosate with 1 oz Sharpen (saflufenacil) sprayed/broadcast on April 16. There is little residual activity with this mix however, as you can see from the picture, it was very effective in terminating the cover crops as well as taking care of what weeds were present – which weren’t a lot, from what I saw, mainly chickweed and dandelion though I didn’t scout the field after the March 24 field day.

In 2014, the last time this field was planted in soybeans it had quite a bit of marestail (sometimes called horseweed, Latin name Conyza canadensis). In central Indiana marestail is often glyphosate-resistant and even when it isn’t, control becomes difficult once it gets above 6 inches tall. For this reason we will be using a Liberty variety of soybeans once it becomes dry enough to plant.

Purdue Extension has two publications that were useful in considering our herbicide selection: Biology and Management of Horseweed and Successful Cover Crop Termination with Herbicides.

It’s been cold and wet here for the past couple of weeks but we were fortunate to have some warm weather right after the burn-down which certainly helped with that application – as a general rule, daytime temperatures above 50 degrees for several days after herbicide applications increase the effectiveness. According to the National Weather Service daily highs in Indianapolis were at or above 80 degrees on April 17 through 20 (and 77 on the 16th), nearly ideal conditions. Hopefully things will dry up so we can provide a planting update in the near future.