Thinking about Cover Crops…… thoughts to consider

Decisions, decisions these days.  When it comes to selecting the right cover crop for your farm, there is no one-size-fits-all option. This document is to help those of you new to cover crops with the thoughts, questions, and decisions, one needs to make when selecting cover crops.  Planting cover crops on prevent planting acres protects the soil from further water and wind erosion.

This is here to help you make a plan and eliminate stress. Cover Crop selection is based on many different factors. What works on one field may not work on an adjacent field. Each farmer has different goals and ideal practices for their farms. Doing your homework prior to purchasing or planting cover crops can save you time and money. 

Additionally, whether you are a no-till, minimum till, organic, or conventional tillage farmer, cover crops will function differently in each of these practices.  While this worksheet may seem extensive, we ask that you use it to help simplify your decisions of selecting cover crops. This worksheet is designed for either beginners or long term cover crop users. Consider a whole systems approach to farm management for lasting improvements to your soil health. Remember fitting the cover crop to the scenario or goal is key.  You will need to do some homework after answering these questions but hopefully, you know the questions you will need to have answered or other questions that could arise for your farming practices. 

Economics

  1. What is the budgeted amount per acre I am willing to spend on cover crops?
    1. Is this only the cost of seed or does this include planting time, fuel, management and termination of the cover crop?
  2. Are there any cost-share programs through my:
    1. NRCS
    2. SWCD
    3. County Commissioners
    4. FSA
    5. Grants
  3. Am I taking a prevent plant option?
    1. Do I know the dates that I can plant the cover crop or restrictions with programs from the standpoint of crop insurance, EQIP (NRCS program), FSA or other programs I may be a part of?
  4. Did I explore the option for an MFP payment through the FSA Office based upon using cover crops?

Please note programs under #2 could have limitations to the species, rate, the life of cover crop and type of cover crop one chooses – know these limitations

Goals

  1. What are the goals of my cover crop?
    1. Reducing erosion
    2. Nitrogen source
    3. Nitrogen scavenger
    4. Soil builder
    5. Erosion fighter
    6. Weed fighter
    7. Good grazing
    8. Quick growth
    9. Lasting residue
    10. Mechanical forage harvest value
    11. Grain/seed harvest value
    12. Interseeding with a cash crop

Questions to ask before purchasing or planting cover crops.

  1. Are the weeds in the current field under control?
  2. Are there drainage issues in this field?
  3. Am I using a prevent plant option that eliminates certain cover crops from my listing?
  4. Are there restrictions with the herbicide/herbicides used on my field?
  5. Are the restrictions with the seed treatment/treatments used on current or prior crops planted in the field?
  6. Are there restrictions with the insecticide/insecticides used on my field?
  7. What are future plans as a cash crop?
  8. Am I required to have an over-wintering cover crop for one of the programs I am enrolled in?
  9. Am I using this as a true cover crop or are there other uses for this cover crop?
    1. Am I trying to use this for haying, grazing or a mechanically harvesting as a forage?
      1. If so, does this require other fertilizer sources?
    2. Will I be potentially using this field for manure?

Seed Purchasing

  1. Who will I purchase my seed from?
    1. Do they have experience with cover crops or are they just selling me seed?
      1. Can they help answer my questions?
    2. If purchasing from a neighbor or other farmer?
      1. Has the seed been germination tested?
      2. Has the seed been tested in 50 states for noxious weeds
  2. Do I understand what the difference between seed and pure live seed is?
    1. The calculation for pure live seed is referred to here https://extension.psu.edu/calculating-the-price-of-pure-live-seed
  3. Is the seed I am requesting even available?
  4. Does it fit my budget?
  5. Do I need to drive and pick up my seed or is it being delivered?
    1. If being delivered how soon will I get the seed?
    2. Can the seed be returned if I don’t use it?
      1. If not able to be returned, can I store the seed for use at another time?
  6. Does the program that I am enrolled in via NRCS, FSA, SWCD have requirements prior to purchasing the seed?

Seeding Rates and Dates

  • If using cover crops please refer to your NRCS Appendix A at https://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/references/public/OH/Appendix_A_cover_crop_7_1_19_v3.pdf.  This guide will assist with dates and rates of planting based upon NRCS guidelines.
  • An additional resource would be located at www.mccc.msu.edu under the selector tool.  This will help with the pros and cons of the cover crops one is choosing.
  • Another great resource is the book called Managing Cover Crops Profitability, 3rd Edition. (See helpful documents section for link)

Planting Cover Crops?

  1. How will I plant my cover crop seed?
    1. Arial seeding
    2. Drilling
    3. Broadcast
  2. Do I know the correct seeding rate?
    1. Note: Rate changes due to the method of seeding.
  3. Am I using a mixture of cover crops?
    1. Do I have the correct rates calculated?.
  4. Do I have access to these methods of seeding?
  5. What species will I select?
    1. Are there limits to the species I select due to current weather conditions?
    2. Are there diseases, I need to worry about with this cover crop?

Termination

  1. How will terminate my cover crop?
    1. Mechanically
    2. Winter kill
    3. Chemically
  2. When will I terminate my cover crop?

Other helpful Documents, Websites or Prior Articles about Cover Crops

  1. Cover Crop Economics: https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Topic-Rooms/Cover-Crops/Cover-Crops-Economics
  2. Managing Cover Crops Profitably, Third Edition, https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition
  3. Midwest Cover Crops Tool Selector, http://mccc.msu.edu/selector-tool/
  4. Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide, 2nd Edition, available at https://ag.purdue.edu/agry/dtc/Pages/CCFG.aspx
  5. Cover Crop Termination: https://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/references/public/IN/NRCS_Cover_Crop_Termination_Guidelines_Ver_3_Sept_2014.pdf
  6. Using corn as a cover crop https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/201919/using-corn-cover-crop
  7. Using soybeans as a cover crop https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/2019-21/considerations-using-soybeans-cover-crop
  8. Noxious Weeds in Cover Crop Seed and Seed Germination https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/2019-21/noxious-weeds-cover-crop-seed-and-seed-germination
  9. Don’t leave your field naked if taking the prevent plant option https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/201918/don%E2%80%99t-leave-your-fields-naked-if-taking-prevent-plant-option-corn
  10. Forage Shortage and Prevent Planting Acres…. Think Oats https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/201919/forage-shortage-and-prevented-planting-acres%E2%80%A6-think-oats
  11. 2019 Challenge: Forage Production Options for Ohio https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/201919/2019-challenge-forage-production-options-ohio

References

Cover Crop Selector Tool, http://mccc.msu.edu/selector-tool/—available from the Midwest Cover Crops Council, www.mccc.msu.edu

Kladivko, E., Sundermeier, A. P., Tenuta, A., et al. (2014). Midwest cover crops field guide (2nd ed.). United States: Midwest Cover Crops Council.

Labarge, G., Ward, A, et al. (2018). A Field Guide to Identifying Critical Resource Concerns and Best Management Practices for Implementation. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University.

Managing Cover Crops Profitably, Third Edition, https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition

Natural Resources Conservation Service – Conservation Practice Standard Nutrient Management Code 590 (OH 590-1) https://efotg.sc.egov.usda.gov/references/public/OH/11-01-2012_Ohio_590_Standard.pdf

Sustainable Crop Rotations with Cover Crops (Ohio State University Factsheet SAG-9), https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/SAG-9

The Biology of Soil Compaction (Ohio State University Extension Factsheet SAG-10),  https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/SAG-10

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About the C.O.R.N. Newsletter

C.O.R.N. Newsletter is a summary of crop observations, related information, and appropriate recommendations for Ohio crop producers and industry. C.O.R.N. Newsletter is produced by the Ohio State University Extension Agronomy Team, state specialists at The Ohio State University and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). C.O.R.N. Newsletter questions are directed to Extension and OARDC state specialists and associates at Ohio State.