A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to travel to Madison Wisconsin to be a part of a panel at the Soil and Water Conservation Society meetings on behalf of the Soil Health Partnership. Greg Whitmore from Shelby and Myself got to address the benefits and challenges of cover crops to an entire room of Soil Conservationists. Ever since talking to a few people after the meetings I have been thinking, and then just last week a group of agronomists from Iowa and myself sat in a room and talked about the same thing as a part of the Iowa Ag Water Alliance.
In both those situations, the same thing comes up. Not one of us can argue the conservation benefits of cover crops, whether it is nutrient sequestration, erosion control or anything in between; we all get it. The problems all lay on the logistic, economic, and agronomic side, and our task that day last week in Huxley was to refine a process that helps you be successful in your cover crop endeavors. My thoughts today aren’t perfect, but I think it lays out a good road map for you and your Field Sales Agronomist to work from.
First thing is setting appropriate goals and expectations. Much like everything else we try to accomplish we need to have an honest conversation about goals and expectations. The goals are important because it will help us determine the correct species mix to accomplish them. The species or species mix to accomplish erosion control is different from that you intend to graze or one that you want to help with compaction issues. This also helps the expectation of what you should see this fall after seeding and spring when it comes time to terminate the cover crop. (more about that later)
Second is we need to have a conversation about WHAT you have DONE THIS growing season, particularly the part about what herbicides you have used, at what rate and when did you apply them. All too often we haven’t thought about cover crops till right about now, then we make a decision and investment without double checking our work up until this point. It is quite possible because of the decisions we have made we need to start planning for a cover crop application for next year instead of this one. This is where it is important that your trusted advisor knows what you have done and has the fortitude to tell you “No, this won’t work.”
This leads us to Rates, Dates, Timing, and Methods of Application. Once decide on species based on our goals; now we need to talk about who, when and how we plan on making these seeding applications. Also paying attention to how species and planting date play a role in the intended seeding rate you will target. In the case of species like Rye which we intend mostly to be for erosion control the later we seed it the higher your seeding rate will get because we are shooting for maximum ground cover, the later planted the less growth, the less growth the less ground cover. Alternatively in the case of some of the other species that may not be as big of an issue.
Finally, we come to the Termination plan. We need to decide now, how, when, and who is responsible for terminating this crop if needed. Are you going to do it with your sprayer or are you going to have us do it? When do we want to and how do we decide what the trigger is? If half the failures in cover crops come from poor planning at seeding the other half comes from poor communication and execution at termination. Do we lay that plan out and communicate now? Because next spring, like every spring we all get very busy and task-oriented.
My big takeaways from those meetings are the importance placed on cover crops isn’t going away, and that if you are not yet trying them, we need to start with the lowest hanging fruit and start small so we can build our confidence from there. When we do that those logistical, agronomic and economic challenges get a lot less challenging.