Cover Crop Frenzy


I get chided sometimes for harking back to the past too much but I can’t avoid it. Much of what constitutes farming today is harking back to the past. No better example is the increasing interest in cover crops, a practice as old as the hills. Instead of leaving crop fields bare over winter, they are planted in late summer or early fall to vegetation that keeps the soil covered until planting time the next spring. All kinds of advantages accrue. Protection against erosion of course, but also the cover crops take up soil nutrients that might otherwise leach away over winter and then release them back into the soil for crop plants to absorb the next year. Needless to say, what makes the practice especially attractive is that it is not only environmentally beneficial but almost immediately profitable since the government pays about half the cost. One of my favorite farmers likes to say when he thinks no one is listening except me, that he can’t understand why so many of his brethren are anti-government conservatives. “Taking advantage of government programs has been the key to our success,” he says.

Cover cropping is certainly a good thing as long as farming depends so completely on annual cultivation. (It is too much to hope that humans will ever be wise enough to keep most of the soil in forage and tree crops but at least there ought to be cover crop subsidies for hay and pasture too.) I will pretend to ignore that thought right now in favor of telling you about an almost hair-raising adventure that cover cropping provided me recently, if I had any hair to raise. I got a call from a neighboring farmer. He invited me to come see something he said was really interesting. “You have to see this to believe it,” he said. “A new machine that broadcasts cover crop seed into mature standing corn.”

So I drove over to where he said the machine was in operation, along a country road where the cornfields stretched endlessly to all the far horizons. Corn in our neighborhood this year is wonderful. It is taller than I have ever seen corn since the days of open-pollinated stuff and thickly planted in the modern way. Rows are 20 inches apart and stalks hardly six inches apart.  It is difficult to walk in these fields.

Okay. Now imagine you are sitting in your car on a lonely country road with jungles of this kind of corn all around you and nothing else in sight. I wondered if maybe I had gone to the wrong section of land (we don’t reckon land in acres anymore but in sections). Then down the road a bit, too far away to hear motor noise, something big started oozing out onto the road from the wall of corn. And it kept right on oozing. I doubt if the effect could have been any more breathtaking had a 747 airliner rolled noiselessly out of the foliage. I was told later that the length of the boom from which flexible tubes hang down to spread the cover crop seed on the ground between the corn rows is 180 feet long. That is something more than the width of a football field. The cockpit where the driver sits loomed above the corn as did the motor works and bin containing the seed. The exceedingly narrow, tall wheels reminded me of giraffes. But the wonder was that this monster moved through that thick stand of tall corn without knocking down one single stalk except right at the edge of the field where the rows run perpendicular to the others.

I asked the farmer how much that thing cost. He wasn’t sure since he was only paying for the services of a custom operator.  He thought “about half a million.” But he liked it more than flying on seed with an airplane. What was he planting?  Annual ryegrass, dwarf Essex rape and Daikon radishes. Many other plants are being used. Cover cropping comes down to killing off one batch of weeds and then planting another in its place.

The tiny seeds that fell from the planting tubes bounced and rolled around on the hard August soil, but at least did not catch in the corn foliage. Some of them lodged in the little cracks and crevices in the soil surface. Those will sprout for sure when it rains, the farmer assured me. Maybe the others too. I was not bold enough to ask him what this operation was costing him but a small, part time farmer in the neighborhood tells me he can’t afford to do cover cropping, even with the government subsidy. I think that is because the burn down of the cover crop in spring is sophisticated and costly. Generally, it calls for two quarts of glyphosate per acre, along with 8 ounces per acre of 2,4-D to kill winter annuals, all in 10 to 15 gallons of water depending on air temperature. You may need to add AMS (whatever that is— I am reading this from the application directions) or citric acid to adjust pH of the water. You might want to add a non-ionic surfactant to the mix. You may want to use gramoxone rather than glyphosate because it provides quicker burn down but is not translocated, whatever that means. There are other options involving the weedkillers, Atrazine and Simazine, and crop oil. Are you still with me? Remember to use flat nozzles, not flood jet nozzles, at 20 to 30 psi. Do not use an air induction sprayer because excessive boom bounce can cause improper overlap that results in streaks.

Farming sure ain’t what it used to be.


For those who might like to learn more about no-till, cover-crop systems, there are several controlled trials to review from the Rodale Institute and Penn State University.

You might be interested to look at what Peter Andrews is doing in Australia; probably relates more to managing the movement of water across the farming landscape than cover cropping but he has theories on keeping the land covered. An example of going against accepted agricultural practices.
He is the inventor of the Natural Sequence Farming method. He is acknowledged as having converted his degraded high-salinity land at Tarwyn Park NSW into a fertile, drought-resistant estate.

Brian and many others, I really do appreciate you all for taking time to educate me on these matters. I need to know what you know but it would have taken me an hour or more to find out what you have told me here in just a minute. Coming from people who are actually doing it is even better. Gene

Many of us have decided to do the kind of perennial agriculture that Gene has done for so many years. The way Gene does things is way more laid back, particularly in the last few years.

Roller-crimpers do an excellent job. Many no-till, cover-crop farmers are finding they no longer have to use an herbicide to kill off cover crops with proper use of a roller-crimper. This technique also gives a great biomass mat on the soil surface. And, yes, the cash crop does come up nicely through the mat.

I’m not really sure we need any more ‘proof’ of any specific agricultural practice being helpful or harmful. The USDA ‘proved’ organic agriculture to be beneficial financially and agriculturally many times over in the early 1900’s. Science was in full swing ‘proving’ ancient techniques, as if we needed scientists to tell us that cover crops were beneficial.

I have a post on this subject as well –

The USDA Yearbooks of Agriculture from earlier in the 1900’s and especially during the Great Depression ‘prove’ at length that it would be beneficial to return to horse-drawn plow agriculture. They may not say that in so many words, but if you read them with the knowledge of what has happened to our soils in the past 50 years, the articles will assuredly lead you to that conclusion.

Here in Iowa, cover cropping is all the rage in the media generally led by Farm Bureau or one of their sponsored spin-off groups. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy has been in place for 5 years now offering farmers government cost shares to plant cover crops. Based on the media you would think driving across Iowa in Late November you would see fields of cover crops. Unfortunately that is not the case. Maybe in 20 years if farmers are forced to do it. As it stands today of the 2.3 million acres in crop production (lowest estimate I can find for land in row crop production for Iowa, highest was 3.1 million acres), 168500 acres will be in cover crops this year. That’s a meager .07%. IMHO cover crops is all the rage in the media, but little in physical activities. Only time will tell how well cover crops will expand, but for me it is better than leaving the soil bare.

Cover cropping comes down to killing off one batch of weeds and then planting another in its place.

Ah, beatiful! I had to add that to my database of my favourite quotes!

To bad we aren’t spending most of this effort learning how to do perennial agriculture like Mark Shepard does.

I would never chide anyone who knows to say “harking back” instead of “hearkening back”.

Up here in northern Maine potato country, my neighbor, farming 300 or so acres, alternates oats with potatoes as is the local practice. The oats, however, don’t get planted until the spring of the off year because there simply isn’t enough growing time left after potato harvesting for much of anything to sprout up here. Something new this year is that his crew is baling the straw after the oat harvest. Privately I was nervous that all the organic matter was being hauled away by doing this, but then he told me that they’re saving the bales to chop and blow back in between the potato rows next year as a mulch to keep the soil people happy. I have yet to see if the round bales stay in the field or if they’re collected and stored. It will also be interesting to see just how straw gets applied to potatoes on an industrial scale. He described the chopper he intends to use, but the details escaped me.

Translocation – perhaps translocation of the toxin into the seed as the plant writhes in its death throws?

“Farming isn’t what it used to be”–indeed. Today conventional farming is really just working for the company store.

Somehow I just don’t think its quite as nice as seeing a corn field in mid November that’s been shocked and Rye as green as it can be that’s been planted around the shocks.
Cover crops that require extra poisons to kill off are adding to the problem in my opinion.

The best cover crops in our area are oats and winter peas, both of which winter kill and can be easily tilled in spring. No need for chemicals at all and they do not become weeds the following summer. When I was younger, I used to put loads of horse manure on my garden every year but the weeds the next year were really bad. Now that I am older and not as inclined to wield a pitchfork, I’ve found that cover crops save work the next year by reducing weeds and yield a much better soil structure. Manure from the chickens still goes on the asparagus bed and around the raspberry and gooseberry bushes.
Keep up the great job of informing us of the latest trends back towards the ‘old ways’. Maybe the contrarians aren’t as crazy as some might think!

Scientists associated with the NRCS are proving out organic farming practices using cover crop rotations and no chemicals. A webinar talking about this research (though focused on soil) can be found at:

If taking money from the government (which took it at gunpoint or threat of caging from others) is the key to that farmer’s success, he has no business being in farming. If I can’t make it farming without receiving stolen funds, I will quit and get a real honest job.

I still think there should be much more research on planting annual crops into pasture as in pasture cropping which Colin Seis and others do in Australia. It is my understanding that he plants oats or other cool season grain into warm season pasture. The oats are rotationally grazed a few times before letting the now well- tillered oats mature into grain. The oats are combined, then the warm season pasture comes on strong.

So why not Corn as a warm season grass planted into bluegrass and clover, which tend to slow down in summer, at least around here, unless a lot of water is applied as irrigation? Ken Albrecht, a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison has done research using Kura Clover with corn. Also, I know of a bit more research along these lines being performed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service. However,it always seems there is suppression of the clover/grass combo by herbicides or mowing.

I’m thinking us homesteaders /garden farmers might incorporate our grazing livestock into the perennial cover crop/ annual crop inter-cropping equation to help the corn get ahead of the clover /grass combination.

As an alternative to herbicides I’ve experienced personally my chickens have a great time scratching around beneath my corn which is mulched with old alfalfa hay and they have a great time picking around in the lawn. so why not grow corn in a lawn/pasture? I’m still working on figuring out how to exclude the chickens from the mulched corn when it is becoming established inasmuch as chicken wire or bird netting seems to pose a challenge to them which they can’t refuse. I inadvertently tried geese in corn but they quickly learned how to husk the ears and guzzle down the corn kernels while leaving most of the stalks standing. My other idea is to leave pens of rabbits between the rows of corn that are moved as needed. But keeping the predators (everything with canine teeth likes rabbit meat) at bay is a problem with that idea. I have no doubt that some of Gene’s blog followers have this figured out already or will soon.

Probably the argument can be made that the corn yields would be suppressed with a living mulch of pasture covering soil between the corn stalks but if one looks at the big picture in regard to total returns and soil conservation, maybe that isn’t so important.

We haven’t used a high clearance applicator as described here to seed our cover crops yet. There is a guy in Northern Indiana that does that as a customer applicator. I want to say the application was $9-10/acre. Cheaper than flying them into standing corn, and I’ll bet gets a better stand as well. The rigs doing this are just sprayers where they pull the spray tank off this time of year and install a Gandy box/air seeder. Some farmers and companies like Salford and Great Plains are mounting these air seeders on top of vertical tillage tools. We are learning that it seems cereal rye is a very good choice after corn going to soybeans the next season. The rye can be seeded up into November so we aren’t looking to get it on before harvest in standing corn. Now stuff like clover we want as cover ahead of a corn crop we are trying to get on earlier. We should have that being flown on this week if they haven’t done it already the last couple of days. This would be two weeks earlier than we’ve done in the past. We need that extra growth to get the clover to overwinter. Oats and radish will be in that mix as well. We are also planting early maturity soybeans on some of those acres.

Cover cropping isn’t cheap. We have up to $45/acre in seed an application costs on our covers. We are getting EQIP funding now which helps quite a bit. However, that funding wouldn’t apply to anything you harvest so unfortunately the gov’t won’t pay you for covers cut for hay later as far as I know. Of the 500 acres we have under the EQIP program I can’t put winter wheat there and still call that a cover crop even if we are no-tilling soybeans right behind that wheat. Basically you can’t harvest a crop from the cover and get the subsidy.

In one field this year we burned down cereal rye just starting to head out with Roundup and Rowel for residual. It was our latest planted bean field, but it’s the best looking field of soybeans we have and the most weed free. We’ll definitely be expanding the Roundup/Rowel program next season.

I feel like a Luddite. I plant my cover crop (oats, etc.) with a hand-crank broadcast seeder, let it winterkill, then turn it in with a disc come Spring. As for “chemicals” that’d be manure. No instructions for application are printed on the side of my equines, but I manage to figure that part out.

I am happy that cover cropping is coming back. Someday a few farmers will discover planting in clover or lespedeza works pretty good too without the burn down chemicals. We did that with the Soil Conservation Service 25 years ago in Southern Indiana.
I use to be a certified crop advisor and chemical consultant and what you said makes sense. There are many combinations and additives.

The problem as I see it is the cover crops should only get paid for by the government if the farmer allows the field to lay fallow or cut if for hay one time the next year. They use to do that with CRP ground years ago. Five year rotations, a little manure and feeding the grain on the farm would help more than anything. Maybe when there is only one farmer per county things will change.

The larger acreage young farmers working with parents or other relatives I talk to tell me they are looking for a different way to farm. I suspect the 20-30 something farmers may not look so favorably on big Ag. They are persuaded by social media as well.

Living in north Florida we do things backwards. We grow leafy vegetables and fresh market spring potatoes during the winter. Crops are out of the field by mid-June when the summer rains start. Cover crops are planted to shade the ground to prevent hard to handle weeds and grasses from growing. September is the time farmers knock down the cover crop. No herbicides are used, the fields are harrowed and bedded once a month and by December all the vegetation has rotted and been incorporated into the soil and the land is ready for planting. This uses a lot of diesel and tractor hours

With high corn prices many farmers have been double cropping with summer corn. We farm on 40 inch rows so each row is flattened on top and two drills of corn planted ten inches apart.

If the cover crop is not cultivated many uncontrolled weeds almost crowd out the cover crop. This is in front of my house

I’d fall asleep just reading those instructions. Enjoyed your “hair raising” comment since only imperfect heads need to be covered with hair 🙂

I recently read “Old McDonalds Farm” by Angus McDonald about his father’s rescue of farmland in Oklahoma early in the last century. He seemed to manage fine without chemicals and machines but, as you observed, things have changed.

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