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Cover crops provide benefits to farmers

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 05/28/2013 8:04 AM

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WAUKON, Iowa — Kerry Troendle, of Waukon, had drilled cereal rye, wheat or a wheat-rye mix into 20 acres of soybean ground after harvest for three years for soil conservation and to provide additional forage for his cattle.

His cattle graze on the rye through winter. When the cows come off in spring, he lets the rye grow and then harvests it. He waits a week, sprays it and then no-till plants corn a week later.

"It helps to make better use of the ground,'' he said. "I get an extra crop to help feed the cows, so I can at least plant a row crop and catch some of the $7 corn."

His corn is planted a little later, but even on his bad ground, he averages 180 bushels to the acre.

"With hay $300 per round bale, I'm glad to have the extra feed," Troendle said.

Troendle aerial seeded rye into standing beans last fall for the first time when the Allamakee Soil and Water Conservation District arranged for a pilot. Conditions were dry, and the rye started slow but eventually came on. He drilled additional rye after harvest just to be sure he'd have a crop. This spring, the aerial seeded and the drilled rye look about the same.

Don Elsbernd, of Postville, aerial seeded 150 acres of rye grass and tillage radish, some into standing corn and some into standing soybeans. Both grew well. Tillage radish was winter-killed, but the rye grass, which was supposed to be winter hardy, also died. In January, the absence of snow cover and cold temperatures likely stressed the crop too much.

Elsbernd chose rye grass because it puts down roots and because he wanted to avoid the potential allelopathy of cereal rye on corn.

Elsbernd and his wife, Trish, raise 1,300 of mainly no-till corn and some soybeans.

"The primary reason we use cover crops is to help build soil, and in the soybean stubble, we hope it will be an aid to soil erosion," Elsbernd said. "After the soybean crop, that's the most vulnerable soil we have. We're trying to make some efforts to protect that."

In the past, he blended cover crop seed with fertilizer and spread it on a few acres after harvest.

"We wanted more growth in the fall and to get a better start we aerial seeded last fall," Elsbernd said.

The dry fall made it tough for crops to get started, and then the rye grass died out over the winter so there was no spring regrowth.

Elsbernd's friend, Tim Recker, who lives in Fayette County, has several years of experience with tillage radish, and he told him it needs to be seeded early.

"That's why we aerial seeded," Elsbernd said.

Jake Groth, Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservationist in Waukon, measured 6-inch tubers on Elsbernd's tillage radish with tap roots running twice that, but Elsbernd would have liked to see them get more established.

"There is a lot to learn with cover crops," Elsbernd said. "I've talked to people in Indiana who have seen improved soil health and increased yields over time with cover crops."

Elsbernd will use an oats and tillage radish blend on one field and a cereal rye and tillage radish blend on another. If he can get cost-share on more acres, he will give rye grass another try.

"I'd encourage producers to try cover crops," Elsbernd said. "Our goal is to determine what the economic benefits are so that we can justify the cost of cover crops without cost-share down the road."