Cover crops – they work! (When managed properly)Here are the general benefits of cover crops that we should all know:
1. Improving Soil Structure & Water Infiltration
Roots are your best friend when it comes to cover crops. Whether they are fibrous and spreading or a taproot that drives deep to pull up nutrients, varying root structures create channels that facilitate aeration and water infiltration. Beyond the physical abilities of roots, the biological magic that they induce is the real money maker for the soil life. Which leads us to the nutrient cycling that soil biology sparks!
2. Increase Nutrient Cycling
Your soil is the transforming factory that turns nutrients into a form that is able to be taken up by the plant. The biology in the soil is what facilitates this process. The previous mentioned root systems of cover crops give off exudates into the soil that the microscopic biology love to live in. A high population of soil life around the root system creates a zone that feeds the plant versions of the necessary nutrients and minerals in a form they can use.
3. Reducing Erosion
Everyone has seen the rainfall simulator, right? That is a perfect visual to show that it is a fact that something growing (or even dead) on the soil surface reduces erosion. In a rotation, cover crops protect the soil and keep it where you need it. This is especial important for highly erodible soils or areas with shallow top soil. You need to keep every bit that you have! Keep in mind the carbon to nitrogen ratio and rooting type of cover crops when choosing one specifically for erosion control. (We have some erosion control ratings of common cover crops here)
4. Managing Moisture
This benefit can go both ways: holding moisture in or getting rid of it. Need something to retain soil moisture? You need a low growing, ground covering option. Living or terminated cover crops can protect the soil moisture form evaporating away. Need a little less moisture in the spring (don’t we all…)? A living cover crop can uptake that moisture and transpire it away for you. Obviously, the extremes of both of these would not be beneficial, but when used correctly cover crops can be your moisture risk management.
5. Provide Forage
This one is a no brainer for those with livestock (or if you have a neighbor with livestock that might pay you to graze your cover crop *wink wink*). A cover crop can provide many of the benefits listed above and you don’t have to feed as much hay! Selecting the right cover crop for forage is important as well as the seeding rate. Higher rates are often needed to produce the maximum amount of tonnage.
And what do all of these combined have the potential to do? Increase yields and, more importantly, profits! Think about the examples above and consider what cover crops could do for your operation.
Cover crops are generally user friendly and successful with little stress, but there are a few things that shouldn’t be overlooked...
“Prairie Creek Seed, who do you give such a wide range for recommended seeding rates on your cover crop blends?” Good question! Different seeding rates have their place. Want a thick, full stand to achieve maximum forage for livestock? You better stick to the higher end of our scales. Looking for a cover crop that will not be harvested? Then it is more economical to stick to the lower end. There is such a thing as too low of a seeding rate, and that is the first way cover crops can be sabotaged. A seeding rate that is too low will result in not enough cover to establish and will not gain you any benefits.
Another way to mistreat your cover crops is not giving them a proper seeding method. While there are many cover crops that can be broadcast, not all of them can take that! Many large seeded cover crops need to be drill or incorporated in some way to have a strong establishment. Taking the extra time, and sometimes added expense, of drilling your cover crop will pay for itself. The establishment of many cover crops will be sped up by around 2 weeks when drilled. Getting seeds in the ground also makes them more tolerant of weather extremes by having a healthier established root system (this will be important later).
If you are planting a cover crop without the goal of harvesting, then this point is not as critical, but is still important! Growing anything desirable with low fertility is next to impossible. If you want your cover crop to get large enough for forage (or even just large enough to provide adequate erosion control) it does not hurt to provide some fertility as it fits into your operation.
Remember how cover crops that are drilled have a stronger root system to handle weather better? This leads us to the ways that good ol’ Mother Nature can sabotage cover crops. The same way that drought and heavy rain effect your cash crops, those events can also be damaging to your cover crop. While this point is out of your control, it is important to remember that cover crops are not indestructible.
Keep these points in mind to set your cover crops up for success!
Did someone say nitrogen credits? How about forage quality? Cool season legumes can provide both! Here are our favorite legumes to plant when the summer heat subsides:
In forage or cover crop blends seeded in August to early September, winter peas can be your go-to for generating nitrogen. These cold tolerant, bad boys can fix anywhere from 90-150 lbs of N per acre when given ample time to grow and nodulate. That “ample time to grow” can vary based on temperatures, but is important to remember when estimating the amount of nitrogen credits you are actually getting for the next crop. But don’t get caught up in just the nitrogen, these plants will also condition the soil with their roots and provide excellent feed quality.
Seeding Rate = 50 lbs per acre full rate, 10-30 lbs per acre in a blend
Seeding Depth = 1-2 inches in a blend
Ah, lentils. The even more cold tolerant cousin of winter peas! These will be your latest planted legume at they are most able to withstand weather extremes. While they aren’t indestructible, established lentils will be able to hold up against a few frosts. The roots of lentils are great for creating connections with mycorrhizal fungi and assist with water infiltration. Lentils can also be your early spring planted cover crop for green manure or forage, when weather permits.
Seeding Rate = 20-30 lbs per acre full rate, 10-20 lbs per acre in a blend
Seeding Depth = 1-2 inches
Whether you spell it with a “b” or a “v”, it doesn’t matter. Vicia faba is a plant that does a little bit of everything. Pollinator benefit when flowering? Check. Vigorous tap root? Check. Tall, stalk-like growth? Check. The only down fall of this legume is the seed is so big! That being said, it can work well in a blend to fit the slot of cool season legume with attractive advantages and nitrogen fixing ability like the other legumes.
Seeding Rate = 60-75 lbs per acre alone, 10-30 lbs per acre in a blend
Seeding Depth = 1-2 inches
Fixing nitrogen is a super power of these legumes, but where do they actually store that nitrogen? Within plant tissues, meaning the full plant has to be left whole to break down and release the nitrogen back into the soil. While mechanically harvesting these crops can provide great feed, you have to take that removal of the top of the plant into account when figuring how much it is giving back. You will still have the benefit of the root breaking down to release some nutrients back into the soil. For grazing, many of the nutrients will still go back into the soil after they pass through your livestock. Keep this in mind when balancing the forage vs. soil building goals of your legume!
The story of Prairie Creek Seed started long before its official launch. Along the winding road, everyone involved in the company has been placed in their correct seat to keep the bus moving forward. Bringing on those with a passion for not only soil, plant, and livestock health, but also human health and the future of the world we live in.
Here is Karl’s story –
After a career in the seed corn industry, I switched gears and began working exclusively with pasture grasses and forages through Barenbrug. With the company being the leader in grass breeding, I had the ability to travel the United states and Canada to work with different grass-based farms that had varying practices. This time period provided priceless, hands-on education and created an important pool of knowledge to see what makes a farm successful and, in some cases, what not to do.
In 2003, I ended my time with Barenbrug and went to work at Midwestern Bio-Ag. This time in my career was spent not only with individual grass species and their management, but also creating the connection between soil health and forage production. Midwestern Bio-Ag also led me all across the United States and Canada. It was during this period of time that I made the decision to go into business with the family to remain closer to home. I asked Kyle if he wanted to start a seed company and then it all began.
We started out of the basement of our house in 2009. The journey started with distributorships for Blue River Organics, Masters Choice, and Barenbrug. It was not long before we outgrew the basement and spilled into the rest of the house and warehousing off-site in Peosta, IA. The current location near Cascade, IA was purchased in 2015. It was our goal from the beginning to be a true independent seed company with our own brand and products. We wanted to make sure all of our products had the very best genetics and were of the highest quality possible. Relationships built my early career were important to this. The early growth was exponential!
As forages and cover crops have grown, we have established as truly independent and able to lean into our passion for products in those categories and expand them even further. Key things that I would owe our success to would be years of observation across the nation of pasture management. Through this, being able to watch what works where and why and working with screening trials on individual varieties. Also, my hands-on experience raising grass-finished beef and selling to wholesale market in Minnesota. This taught us a lot, because the venture had to be financially viable, so we learned the best ways to make that work. The final integral point was developing that soil health to forage quality connection getting a really good understanding of what it takes in the soil to affect above ground growth.
Karl looks forward to the future of Prairie Creek Seed!
Cereal rye is the simplest cover crop to get started with for a wide range of producers and is an all-around great option to plant in the fall. Here’s why:
As just a cover crop, cereal rye is anything, but boring. With spreading, fibrous roots cereal rye will create a web of tilthy soil as it sends root exudates out. This root system will keep your soil where you want it over the winter.
No time to plant a cover crop after your cash crop? Yes, you do! Cereal rye is one of the latest planted options for fall. This characteristic paired with its ease of establishment makes it a simple option. The extremely reasonable price makes it a smart option.
In the spring, your cereal rye will be the first to green up, making your lawn jealous. This early spring growth adds even more to the soil protection including erosion control, moisture maintenance, and weed suppression. Varying termination methods exist for cereal rye, but we recommend shallow tillage, chemical termination, or crimping (higher seeding needed).
When in your rotation as a forage crop, similar benefits exist. Easy establishment and flexible planting time make it one of your least fussy forages. You can graze your cereal rye in the fall, but not too low so that it has to fight to thrive in the spring. Leaving growth over the winter will give you the earliest possible green-up when old man winter leaves.
Once those shoots and leaves pop up, you have options of grazing and/or harvesting in the spring. When mechanically harvesting, a balance between highest forage quality and highest tonnage occurs; when one is higher, the other lowers. Harvested at earlier stages of development, your cereal rye forage will have its highest protein (20-25%) and digestibility. Harvested at later stages of development, you will achieve the maximum tonnage potential (3-4 DM tons/acre). The most balanced point of the two that we have found is right around boot stage of development and would have levels around the averages of this University of Wisconsin Chart:
Cover crop = 50-80 lbs per acre
Forage = 80-100 lbs per acre
Your Cereal Rye’s Best Friends – when planted before Mid-September
Oats can be combined with for some growth in the fall to supplement fall grazing.
Brassicas will add soil building benefits by pulling up nutrients and forage quality during grazing with high-protein leaves.
Legumes will supply nitrogen fixing when planted early enough in the fall to develop nodules (Beginning of September). Legumes that overwinter will improve forage quality for grazing and mechanical harvest.
BONUS: All of these options will benefit the soil with their varying root systems!
I know no one wants to talk about it yet, but do we remember last winter in most of the Midwest? The ice? The freezing and thawing? Super sub-zero temperatures? That paired with the wet spring caused PCS to see a lot of winter kill in alfalfa stands. While we can’t control the weather, we can follow some guidelines to set your alfalfa up for success going into fall and winter.
Cutting alfalfa is always stressful to the plant, so the timing of that cutting in the fall is very important. Alfalfa should not be cut during the Critical Fall Harvest Period which “is the 6-week rest period (450 Growing Degree Days) preceding the average date of killing frost” (Bagg, 2012). It is important to note that this definition does not give specific days. This will vary throughout the Midwest and even throughout a state.
Why does this critical period exist? Alfalfa needs a full energy reserve (charged battery) to be best prepared for the winter.
This first illustration shows that after the final summer alfalfa cutting, plant begins to regrow using up its reserves into that above ground growth. At a certain point of above ground growth, the plant transitions into returning energy to its below ground reserves (battery). This charged battery is what best quips plants to have strong survival in the winter (depending on how crazy mother nature gets). If you do need to cut the alfalfa, this “safe time” would be after the Critical Fall Harvest Period. It is crucial to leave at least a 6-inch stubble for this cutting. This would be later in the season with weather conditions that would not induce the alfalfa to regrow too much and pull from its reserves. This keeps the battery charged!
What happens when you do not adhere to the Critical Fall Harvest Period? A dead battery.
Again, after it is cut, alfalfa puts on above ground growth using its reserves. Unlike the first, the second illustration shows alfalfa cut too early, before the end of the Critical Fall Harvest Period. This means that plant has some heat units left in the fall to try to regrow again, but what reserves will it then pull from? An already low battery! This means this alfalfa will have the same winter stressors thrown at it as the first illustration, but not have any energy saved up to bounce back from them. Result = more likely to winterkill.
Take care of your alfalfa this fall!
Bagg, Joel. "Taking That Fall Cutting of Alfalfa?" Field Crop News, 21 Aug. 2012.
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