WASHINGTON — The practice of planting a cash crop directly into an immediately terminated or growing cover crop has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as producers look for ways to work through tough spring planting conditions and maximize the benefits of cover crops, says Brent Jones, Iowa Research Farm Manager for GO SEED.
While this has resulted in a lot of new information being made available regarding things like which cover crop species work best with which cash crop and termination strategies, there’s a huge misconception that planting green requires significant equipment investments.
“Work that GO SEED has done with producers and conversations had with industry experts has shown that many people are hesitant to even consider planting green due to the belief that it is going to require them to make huge upfront equipment investments for a practice they don’t even know will work for them,” says Jones. “This is certainly not the case, with many producers taking a bootstrapping approach by tailoring planting practices and cover crop specie selection to work with existing equipment, or by taking the welder out and making modifications for a custom planter to work for them.”
To give producers ideas of how they can utilize existing equipment as is or make customizations, two experienced cover croppers give insight below.
Loran Steinlage, FLOLOfarms, West Union, Iowa
Making the most of the short 140 growing days per year in northeast Iowa has required Loran Steinlage of FLOLOfarms to cheat the system to encourage earlier spring growth and to maintain a living crop in the ground 365 days of the year for the 750-acre farm.
“Traditionally, we were corn on corn and then corn on soybeans, but we started to evolve to companion relay cropping in 2014,” says Steinlage. “This allows us to focus on cycling plants to keep a living plant in the soil at all times to help aid in moisture management and weed suppression. Not only does this help pay the bills quicker, but it has allowed us to start planting green in a tough climate.”
For FLOLOfarms, planting green with a relay crop looks like doing a precision establishment of cover crops in the autumn following harvest and then interseeding the cash crop in the spring. However, instead of terminating the cover crop at or shortly after planting the cash crop like most traditional methods, Steinlage delays termination to maximise its benefits.
“For example, in the autumn, we’ll plant a field planned for soybeans to cereal rye. By the time we are ready for spring planting, that cover crop will only be 2-3 inches tall so delaying termination will not only allow us to take advantage of the biological benefits of the cover crop, but also its harvest potential,” he says. “Really, we are planting green and harvesting green.”
After several seasons of learning to push the limits of his system, Steinlage is ready this year to start a relay of corn and beans and vegetables with cereal rye and buckwheat – giving him five crops in two years.
“At the moment, the field is in cereal rye. This spring, we’ll plant it with corn and let the cereal rye stand until June 15. At that point, we’ll roll-crimp the cereal rye with an inter-roller to suppress it and then plant in a mix of vegetables including peas, string beans and squash, with the goal to harvest them before the corn. Since we suppressed instead of terminated, the cereal rye will still be in the field. We will then interseed that field with beans next April – ideally, we will harvest those two crops at the same time,” he says. “If conditions allow, our next cover crop after that will be buckwheat which will act as an insectary for the following soybean crop.”
Drill – Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units on a custom frame
Skilled in engineering, Steinlage built 10 drills before settling on a Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units on a custom frame fitted with a MonTag seed/fertilizer box in 2016.
“Once I had a drill dialed in and figured out, I’d already be looking ahead to the next one,” he says. “This home build setup is simple, effective and versatile,” he says. “We can seed with it. We can put fertilizer down with it. Essentially that is the tool that made it all flow,” he says.
According to Steinlage, Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units have been ideal due to being very low disturbance.
“You have to be careful with a lot of openers because the disturbance they cause will end up seeding weeds in with your interseed, which is the biggest thing most people struggle with,” he says. “We’ve found minimal soil disturbance to result in the best soil to seed contact. You really have to treat it like a cash crop.”
In-row roller – Dawn InRowl Roller
Through his customization work, Steinlage has gone on to work with Dawn Equipment to help develop and test new projects. A recent one was the development of the InRowl Roller – designed specifically to suppress rather than termination.
“Suppression is really important to us to support an organic system by maintaining the residue mat. By doing this, I only recently terminated clover than has been in the line since 2016,” he says.
Piece of advice:
Before anyone invests any money into equipment for planting green, Steinlage stresses the importance of getting the principles right first. And when the time is right to make upgrades, start simple and stay within budget.
For those already planting green, he advises to keep evolving and to not get locked in the same mindset.
“While something may be the best option right now, that will not always be the case as you continue to understand how you can push things further. The best explanation I heard for this recently is that we are building the plane as we’re flying it.”
For both parties, he recommends producers find a mentor that is planting green on scale – even if it is just someone to follow on Twitter – who will show you the good, bad and ugly.
“Use others to get ideas and then tailor them for what will work for you and your overall business,” he says.
Follow Steinlage on Twitter @FLOLOfarms
Using what’s available
Andrew Reuschel, Reuschel Farms, Golden, Illinois
Starting in the 70s, Reuschel Farms near Golden, Ill., started its first experiment with cover crops and no-till on its 1,200 acre corn and soybean operation. After a break, the Reuschel family gave cover crops another try in the early 90s. Admittedly, says fifth generation Andrew Reuschel, the evolution of where they started to where they are today has not always been a pretty one.
“In the early days, I wouldn’t even classify what we were doing as cover cropping because we weren’t getting any of the benefits. At one point, we were using 3lbs of turnips with 3lbs of radishes per acre – that was insanity. We were going backward on what we wanted to achieve,” recalls Reuschel. “But it was a learning process we had to work through to get to where we are today.”
The turning point was in 2010 when the decision was made to transition from brassicas to grass-based mixtures, allowing the farm to start capturing soil health benefits.
Through continuous refining of practices and strategic decisions to achieve specific goals, present day finds Reuschel planting the entire farm green with management decisions dictated by Mother Nature instead of calendar dates. So far, this has allowed him to delay termination every year.
“For soybeans being planted into cereal rye, I plant when I plant and terminate when I terminate – the two things are separate in my mind,” he says.
While managed separately, he relies on soil moisture and the 10-day forecast for both.
“It is all about managing the variables. If things are getting hot and dry, I will have a look at the 10-day forecast to see how long I can wait until I have to terminate to maximize biomass growth, but without hurting my soil or younger plants,” he says. “If the beans are in the V1 to V2 stage and the cereal rye hasn’t headed yet but is just whipping out moisture, I will go knock it down and beat it up just to buy myself a few more days before having to chemically terminate.”
Data collected on farm show that soybean yield has a conservative 2bu per acre advantage when cereal rye is knocked down when beans reach the V2 stage, allowing for a lot of management flexibility. For corn on the other hand, which is planted into a cover crop cocktail, data shows that the cover crop needs to be knocked down and terminated at the time of planting.
“We can plant, roll and chem in any order, but the cover crop must be terminated before corn starts to emerge to give it immediate access to sunlight,” he says.
To avoid wrapping issues when planting green, cash crops must be planted in the same direction a swath was rolled. For Reuschel, it is much simpler to plant green into a standing cover crop and then knock it down.
“Along with being able to knock the crop down without the need for GPS and maintaining perfect swath widths ahead of the planter, this also allows reels to ride on top of the soil to avoid inconsistent seed depths with inconsistent areas of biomass – another lesson learned the hard way,” says Reuschel.
Soybean planter – 1986 Kenzie 2600 planter with double discs and two press gauge wheels
Corn planter – 1993 John Deere 7200 planter with double discs and two press gauge wheels
When Reuschel Farms ventured into planting green, they wasted no time or money on frills and put their 1986 Kenzie 2600 and 1993 John Deere planters with double discs and two press wheels to work.
“We have the two planters since beans are planted in 15 inch spacings and corn in 30 inch spacings,” he says. “Aside from color, these are essentially the exact same models. These planters are 100% standard and good to go without any modifications. As long as the cover crop is green, these planters will just slide through it like butter. It doesn’t get any more bone stock than this.”
Roller – 20 foot I & J Cover-Crop Roller
To terminate, Reuschel rents a 20 foot I & J Cover-Crop Roller from his neighbor.
“Since it is 20 foot, it is the perfect setup to use when crimping ahead of corn. And the best part an I & J roller crimper is that hairy vetch sees it – which is notorious for wrapping – it lays down,” he says. “This really is the Cadillac of termination tools.”
Crumbling basket – Designed as a stubble tillage tool, Reuschel started renting his neighbor’s crumbling basket to terminate cereal rye and has recently purchased one of his own.
“It doesn’t do as good of a job as the I & J roller crimper, but it is much more cost-effective to rent and is effective at knocking cereal rye over,” he says.
Equipment not worth the hassle:
Residue managers – After trying multiple residue managers that have all caused huge issues with wrapping, Reuschel has found it is best to keep things simple and to leave them off.
Roller crimper planter attachment – Starting out planting green, Reuschel had his sights on eventually attaching a roller crimper to the planter to do everything in one pass. However, the more he learns about the importance of keeping planting and termination separate, particularly for soybeans, the more he is losing interest in one.
Piece of advice:
Five years into evolving his planting green system, Reuschel’s biggest piece of advice is to build flexibility and options into the entire system.
“You need to be able to make a decision at the absolute last moment you can to maximize what you’re trying to achieve because you can’t see into the future and know what conditions are going to be like two months from now,” he says.
But most importantly, he says to learn from mistakes.
“You will screw up. However, you will learn more from screwing it up than you ever could have by getting it right,” he concludes. “Keep evolving and learning new things. You’ll be amazed at how much you will be able to achieve.”
Follow Reuschel on Twitter @AReuschel
Making the most of a cover crop
While the practice of planting green is an innovative management strategy to maximize the benefits of cover crops, producers can take it a step further by tailoring variety and specie selections to support the system and subsequent cash crop.
“Selecting a variety with a later maturing date will allow for greater management flexibility so the cover crop can be terminated when best for the system rather than working around early heading dates,” says Jones.
Varieties also allow for producers to take advantage of specific traits, such as cold tolerance or nitrogen production, that can help a farm overcome unique geographical challenges and target nutrient benefits at the subsequent crop.
If producers plan to harvest a cover crop, Jones advises them to work with their seed suppliers to ensure compliance is maintained for any government programs they may be part of, and plant variety protections are not infringed.
“Certain USDA programs like EQIP, have specific harvest and utilization guidelines that must be followed to avoid being disqualified,” concludes Jones. “Using innovative management practices and genetic traits are a great way to make the most of your cover crop, but make sure they are used in a way that don’t jeopardize other critical areas of your system.”
For more articles concerning soil health, click here.