The state of soybean planting around the country right now ranges from “finished” to “about to start,” depending on geography and weather. But even if you’re still focused on getting your first soybean seed in the ground, it’s not a bad idea to start thinking about what you’ll plant after harvest. If those plans include cover crops, you might start seeing the benefits as early as next spring.
Cover Crops Could Be Right For You
At least that’s what Ohio State University assistant professor and extension educator James Hoorman would like tell you.
“I’ve had farmers tell me that cover crops are only suited for small farmers or that it simply won’t work for them,” he says. “But I know of a farmer who plants over 10,000 acres of cover crops a year.”
Hoorman says the number of acres planted to cover crops on a yearly basis continues to multiply as more and more farmers realize that cover crops are beneficial.
Risk vs. Reward
Numerous rewards may be gained from planting cover crops. Consider all of the following:
- Organic matter: Cover crops can increase the amount of organic matter in your soil. “It takes approximately 10 tons of decomposed plant residue and 1,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre to increase soil organic matter by one percent,” says Hoorman. Using cover crop mixtures can increase organic matter levels in a much more cost-effective way. Increased organic matter also increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, which will pay off in dry spells.
- Improved soil structure: Cover crops increase the soil’s porosity, improving drainage and decreasing soil compaction.
- Weed control: Planting a cover crop can help suppress weed growth by competing for nutrients and sunlight that would otherwise be free for the weeds’ taking.
- Soil erosion: Cover crops help hold soil in place that may otherwise be susceptible to erosion, lessening nutrient runoff and keeping those valuable nutrients in place for the next crop to use.
However, cover crops are not fool proof. A farmer does assume some additional cost and risks when using them, but most, if not all, can be avoided with well-timed management. It’s important to get crops planted in early fall, to give them 60 to 90 days of growth before winter. This may mean that inter-seeding with the corn or soybeans in the ground is needed. Cover crops left to grow too long in the spring, may dry out the soil for the next crop, especially if using cereal rye or winter rye. Management is the key, says Hoorman.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait.
In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to want quick results. But in the case of cover crops, patience is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity. It may take three to seven years, says Hoorman – to see the full benefits of using a cover crop. The best results come from planting a cover crop every single year. He compares planting cover crops to the costs of tiling a field. “If a farmer tiles a field at $1,000 an acre, he doesn’t expect to get all of that money back in the first year. It is an investment that will pay off over time.
As for the perceived additional cost associated with planting cover crops, Hoorman says it may actually save farmers money. “It costs a tremendous amount of money to do tillage, between the labor, fuel and wear and tear on the equipment. The money farmers would have spent tilling a field should be spent on growing a cover crop.”
Better nutrient retention may lessen the need to apply expensive fertilizers over time and more weed control could reduce the number of herbicide applications in a year, all adding up to additional savings.”