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Plant cover crops after harvest to boost soil health

Agronomy Bulletin 113 - Cover Cropping

Soybeans planted into a ryegrass cover crop benefit from improved soil health and weed suppression. Photo courtesy of Laura Crowell, provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Services, Des Moines, IA.

Situation

Cover crops planted after harvest can improve and maintain soil quality in today’s intensive corn-soybean rotations. Understand how different types of cover crops recover unused nutrients, retain soil moisture, suppress weeds and break up compaction.

Factors to Consider

  • Corn-soybean rotation
  • Moisture management
  • Annual weed pressure
  • Nutrient capture
  • Soil compation
Tillage Radish® plants feature deep taproots that aerate the soil when used as cover crops. Photo of Tillage Radish courtesy of Cover Crop Solutions LLC.

Action Plan

  1. Set cover crop goals. Winter crops can save fertilizer expenses by recovering soil nutrients for use by crops the following season, especially in years following drought when nutrients are left unused. Cover crops reduce winter weed pressure, and those with aggressive root systems help break up compacted soils and improve drainage. Growing cover crops also can help farmers move from conventional tillage to a no-till system. Prioritize the situations that cover crops could help address on your farm.
  2. Check out choices. Legumes such as vetch, clover, cowpeas and winter peas capture nitrogen in the upper soil profile. Winter-hardy small grains such as winter wheat, cereal rye and annual ryegrass reduce weed competition by shading out winter annuals like henbit, chickweed and marestail. Tillage Radish® plants or other Brassica species with large taproots reach deep into the soil to break up soil compaction and improve moisture infiltration. All cover crops help reduce soil erosion. An online cover crop selector tool can help you make the best choice for your fields.
  3. Seed early Establish cover crops as early as possible. Plant just after current crop harvest by drilling or using precision planting techniques. Or, seed may be broadcast over the existing crop with aerial application or high-clearance spreaders.
  4. Manage Spring Planting If the cover crop has not winter-killed, apply a contact herbicide just prior to planting the new corn or soybean crop. For best results, plant the new crop directly into winter crop residue without tilling.

Summary

Fields in a corn-soybean rotation can benefit from planting cover crops immediately after harvest and allowing them to stand through the winter. Cover crops help improve soil health, protect the soil surface, suppress winter weeds and hold nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil.

For more information, contact your local Mycogen Seeds customer agronomist or trusted agronomic adviser.

Published on Wednesday, June 17, 2015