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Farmers are cover crop believers

By Jean Caspers-Simmet
simmet@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 12/03/2013 2:47 PM

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PLAINFIELD, Iowa —Rick Juchems and Jon Gisleson are cover crop believers.

They spoke about using cover crops during an Iowa Learning Farm/Practical Farmers of Iowa field day at Juchems' farm near Plainfield. Gisleson farms near Floyd.

This is the sixth year that Juchems has seeded rye into standing corn. The 2013 corn yield was 230 bushels to the acre. He seeded one bushel of oats and two pounds of radishes into standing soybeans, which got a good start before he combined.

Juchems said that prior to the cover crops, he did a Kura clover trial as a living mulch but found it was too difficult to penetrate the root zone to plant corn. Kura clover might work in a filter strip, waterway or field border, but it didn't work in his corn field, Juchems said.

Klinkenborg Aerial Spraying and Seeding, of Parkersburg, seeded his cover crops in September when the beans were starting to turn yellow and corn was getting close to blacklayer.

"They were great," Juchems said. "I couldn't keep up with them with the seed tender."

In between the corn rows the rye was green. Corn stalk residue is covering the rye now, but he expects to see it when it comes back up in the spring. Oats and radishes that were planted into the soybeans stayed green until low temperatures killed them.

In an ILF cover crop trial, beans yielded 61 to 62 bushels per acre on ground where Juchems doesn't have cover crops. Where he has had cover crops for six years, yields were 66 to 68 bushels per acre.

Juchems said when he tried to dry out some rented ground with a field cultivator this spring, USDA counted earthworms. There were four times as many night crawlers where he no-tilled into standing cornstalks as there were where he used the field cultivator.

"Any kind of tillage destroys a lot of the good things happening out there," Juchems said.

Juchems burns down the rye as soon as he can in spring.

"Spray early, and don't let it get ahead of you," Juchems said.

Gisleson has been operating his family's Century Farm for 38 years and no-tilling beans for 23 years and strip-tilling corn for a decade. It took some coaxing by IlF's Jacqueline Comito to get him to try cover crops.

He's used them for two years. Last year he seeded 50 pounds of rye into 100 acres of standing corn the first week in September.

"Don't expect a lot of growth in the fall," he said. "Four to six inches is fine."

Gisleson said that this past spring when his area received huge amounts of rain, he had no soil movement where there were cover crops. He sprayed burn down and as wet as the ground was his drill never picked up any soil when he planted soybeans into the dead rye.

"It was a beautiful seeding environment," he said.

An added benefit this fall when he strip-tilled the bean field for corn planting next spring was gorgeous retained root structure from the rye. This year he had 400 acres of cereal rye aerially seeded into standing corn.

Gisleson is apprehensive to try a rye cover crop on ground going to corn because it needs to be killed 10 days before he plants, and he's concerned about the time factor. He also doesn't want it to interfere with his strips. He drilled 100 acres of oats this year behind the combine but doesn't think he'll get much benefit because it froze too soon. In a normal year it should work better.

Liz Juchems, Rick's daughter, who works with the Iowa Learning Farms, showed photos from ILF cameras installed in her dad's corn field where rye was aerial seeded and in his soybean field seeded to radish and oats at the same time. The cameras take several photos each day.

Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, is conducting a joint research project with ILF on cover crop mixes to see if they can increase crop yields or provide other benefits.

"There is a publication by an ISU professor that shows legumes mixed with rye can increase the next year's corn yield by 5 percent to 40 percent," Carlson said. "Legumes like hairy vetch or winter lentil are trickier to get started than winter rye. On Rick's farm, we have rye overseeded into standing corn compared with a mix of rye, rape seed and radish. Into standing soybeans we seeded oats, hairy vetch and radish compared with oats alone."

Carlson said rye is easy to get established, but it can cause yield drag in corn. Mixing in legumes, may result in yield increases.

Carlson said if crops aren't harvested until after Oct. 1, it's better to fly on cover crop seed. If crops come out before October, it's probably better to drill the seed. The seeding rate for rye should be 55 to 60 pounds if aerial applied. Drilling can be 45 pounds per acre.

"Fall 2012 was a perfect year to drill," Carlson said. "This year was a perfect year to fly it on."

Crop insurance and cover crop rules have been updated for next year, Carlson said. There are now zones for when cover crops need to be terminated in order to qualify for crop insurance.

In western Iowa, cover crops must be terminated at or before planting. In eastern Iowa, cover crops must be terminated at or within five days after planting, but before crop emergence. Grazing is OK, but haying rules are still undecided. Guidelines on haying should come soon.

"Start having discussions with your crop insurance agents now about this," Carlson said.

Farmers should consider using the Conservation Stewardship Program to experiment with cover crops and another new practice and get financial assistance for five years, Carlson said. A farmer near Solon is using cereal rye on all his crop acres. He harvests and sells seed and he also added red clover to the system.

For more information on cover crops go to http://www.practicalfarmers.org/programs/Field-Crops_cover.php or http://www.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/.