Today, the topic of cover-crops is everywhere, from popular no-till magazines to groups of very traditional farmers giving it a try because of its perks. We have been researching the use of Cereal Rye as a cover-crop on our farm for 4-5 years with a lot of positive results and positive aspects we enjoy from using this somewhat progressive system.
About My Farm
As a 5th generation farmer in the Fulton, Warren, and McDonough County area who’s family farm has never had the reputation of being on the progressive side of agriculture, it may seem shocking that our operation is testing the use of anything besides a disk ripper and field cultivator. Our area has both ends of the spectrum when it comes to progressive operations; mainly differentiated by size, capacity, and in my opinion, work ethic.
At 2000 acres, we’re toward the larger size of farms in the area and like every large farm around, we conventionally work every acre, every year. We have tried No-Till and reduced-till styles of farming but neither allows us to get crops in first or grow the highest yielding crops around. We have one 24 row planter and one 35” cultivator so when it comes to eating through acres in the spring, we aren’t at an advantage against the weather. Conventional tillage allows for soils to warm up, dry out, and start out young plants faster than no-till and reduced till, and with todays racehorse hybrids and Varieties, we want to be the first planter rolling in the field because 90% of the time, the early-bird gets the worm. Esspecially with today’s seed treatments and good overall plant vigor bred into hybrids and varieties, there’s no reason to wait until your neighbor starts.
A field of cover crops in early spring that got a good establishment in the fall.**^
Like stated before, we conventionally till every acre of corn ground going to beans and vice versa but since we are only using cover crops before beans, I’ll stick to describing that system.
We start out our cover crop system like every other conventional till-er; after a corn field in harvested, we wait for stalks and residue to dry out 2-3 days and go in and disk the field fairly deep. We like to see as much mixture of soil, root-balls, and trash as possible. After we get every acre disked, which is usually not until we are done harvesting, we go out and disk rip every acre as well. This is where the first deep disking really helps bury as much residue as we can. This is where most systems end unless soil tests were taken and the field needs dry fertilizer or lime, in this case, applications are done before initial disking usually but sometimes before ripping if you have time constraints.
Our first step in the cover crop seeding process is knocking down the ripped ground with a soil finisher wherever our Terra-Gator dry spreader will go. We do this because you can’t spread fertilizer on ripped ground without giving yourself future and current lumbar problems… We set our Auto-Steer to work a pass every 60 feet, which is the width our terra-gator spreads, so we are driving on nice smooth soil. This extra working also helps evenly “pack” the freshly ripped soil so it’s not so soft next spring where the planter tractor will be driving on.
This is a muncher that is very similar to the one we use.**^
Second, we mix our cover crop of choice, cereal rye, with potash with our fertilizer blender, we apply 200 lbs/acre of potash and 1 unit of rye/acre. So for a 10 acre field we would mix 2000 lbs potash with 10 bushels(units) of cereal rye. We spread this on the field and right behind our spreader, we pull our 1990’s John Deere 30” mulcher, also known as a “packer”. This is a tool that farmers don’t use around here anymore because field cultivators have grown in popularity but they do a similar job, designed to be used before planting in the spring. We set the shanks to just barely scrape the top ½” of soil and let the 2 sets of rollers, roll in the small seeded rye, while at the same time, smoothing out the entire field so when planting into the rye next spring, we will have a nice, level seedbed that is not compacted but also isn’t too “wishy washy” when planting.
We have had both great results and have had no results in our test strips on multiple farms but after having a lot of positive results and impacts on our farms, we have decided to plant cover crops on roughly half of our ground going to soybeans. Starting out with the bad, we applied rye to some of our flat, un-tiled, black silt loam ground and during the spring of 2014, we couldn’t get in to burn it down with roundup and 2-4D until the rye was over 2 feet tall, resulting in a wet, mat of residue that we had to disk in order to plant into. The same spring we also had trouble getting into our more rolling fields that we were able to burn-down, but it wouldn’t dry out enough to plant it, resulting in a late planting and surpressed yields.
Despite these downfalls, we still continue to use this system because on our H.E.L (Highly Erodible Land) needs to be reduced-till and this system allows us to disk and rip that ground in the fall, giving us proper decomposition on residue, and reduced compaction while still maintaining ground cover to satisfy the reduced-till requirements. Our favorite aspect of planting Rye as our specific cover crop, is the alleopathy effect the killed off rye has on small seeded broadleaves and grasses for months after the burn-down. We do burn-down the rye with Roundup, 2-4D, and Zidua. The Zidua is a Seedling Shoot Growth Inhibitor that works in junction with the alleopathy effect the rye gives off to surpress seed germination as well.
This system is a huge aspect of our weed control program and with the new added tool of Xtend Soybeans, we have been able to limit our number of passes through the field to a single pass in many circumstances. We plant some Liberty beans as well and the effect that the rye has on weeds to surpress growth really helps Liberty kill them because of the small amount of surface area needed to come in contact with Liberty vs a large weed that has more surface area.
Future of Rye as a Cover Crop for other crops
I truly believe in time, almost all farmers will be planting some sort of cover crop and because of our area’s large problem with weed control in beans specifically, rye will be a leader in the field. I also believe that some people will try different systems of using the cover-crop than we do and find success in even more areas that we already have. I also believe that someday we will plant other cover crops in front of corn that will not hurt the young corn plants like rye. My father, Gary Cooper, a Certified Crop Advisor, farmer, and Pioneer sales rep, stated “If rye has such a bold alleopathy effect on grasses in my soybean field, it must have a negative effect on young corn plants.”
If a very early harvest comes and you are able to plant you cover crop early and it gets established very well, I believe that if the rye is able to be killed off very early, you could possibly plant corn behind it without a bad effect. This system would have a great nitrogen storage system especially if used in tandem with a corn-on-corn rotation that has extra usable nitrogen hanging around after harvest that would just go to waste that rye would uptake a store all fall-spring and when killed off, that decomposing rye would store even more rye that you applied for your upcoming corn crop until later in the year when it would release slowly and would provide a lot of nitrogen during the corn ear fill-out that corn-on-corn sometimes needs help with.
Last reason Rye
Rye is cheap. We have bought both commodity rye from a neighbor who sometimes plants and harvests rye to mix for feed, and we have also bought rye from seed companies who clean the rye and use a very straight line of rye without much variation. We would like to purchase a seed cleaner someday so we can clean our own rye that we might harvest ourselves and sell to neighbors who want to get in on all the hype of “CerverCrerps” We pay $11/unit (bushel) from a seed company and have paid $8 for commodity rye which is similar to the market price of rye. If we apply one unit/acre of rye, that is around $10/acre plus application and In our operation’s opinion, a well spent $10 that helps with weed control and nutrient uptake, storage, and relocation for plant availability.
If you ever have a neighbor or land tenant ask you to plant cover crops, don’t be afraid, they are well worth the small amount of money they cost to plant.
Spencer Cooper; Senior majoring in Agricultural Business from Avon, IL. Plans to Farm after graduation.