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Guest Commentary: Cover Crops

Fri, Jul 19th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

By Donna Rasmussen

This year’s wet spring and summer have resulted in very unusual planting circumstances with many farmers unable to plant corn and soybeans on some acres. The result has been bare ground with a good crop of weeds. Farmers are allowed to plant cover crops on prevented planting acres, and we highly encourage them to do so for many reasons. This is also the ideal time to install needed conservation practices, such as grassed waterways and terraces, when there is no crop to disturb during construction.

Cover crops are required for prevented planting acres on highly erodible land to protect the land from erosion. Cover crops are highly recommended on non-highly erodible land as well even though it is not required. As anyone can see, just because land is labeled non-highly erodible doesn’t mean it won’t erode. Many fence lines and trees have been removed to enlarge fields, especially on some of the flatter land, so there is little to stop the water on long slopes. Soil erosion can be just as severe on these fields as on highly erodible land.

Cover crops have multiple benefits beyond erosion control. Land that hasn’t been planted to a crop can suffer from the “fallow effect” if nothing is grown on it for a season. The soil is living, and the microorganisms that make the soil functional suffer if no roots are growing on which they can feed.

Crops grown in the year following a fallow year suffer due to the loss of the soil organisms. A cover crop, especially winter rye, keeps the organisms alive and thriving for many months to the benefit of next year’s crop. Cover crops also increase organic matter in the soil making it less prone to compaction and more able to absorb and hold water. Cover crops capture nutrients to reduce losses until a crop can utilize them. The gains far outweigh the costs to plant a cover crop. Due to possible seed shortages for winter rye, get seed orders in early.

Prevented planting also offers the opportunity to install conservation practices without disturbing a growing crop or waiting until after harvest. Seeding of grassed waterways and terraces is often more successful at this time of year versus earlier in the spring when rains can damage the seeding or later in the fall when frost can kill the seeding. The wider time window means that technical staff contractors who specialize in conservation work are more available to do the work. The crop insurance rules do allow for the installation of conservation practices, but individual insurance carriers may have some restrictions, so be sure to check with your agent before planning the work. If cost share is needed, contact the local Soil and Water Conservation District and have an application approved before doing the work.

Prevented planting created stress and worry for many farmers, but by planting cover crops and installing conservation practices, the best can be made from a bad situation. Remember to check with your insurance agent before going ahead with these practices to be sure you are not jeopardizing crop insurance eligibility.

The Fillmore Soil and Water Conservation Board of Supervisors are:

Travis Willford (Harmony)

Brian Hazel (Lanesboro)

Pamela Mensink (Preston)

Tim Gossman (Chatfield)

Leonard Leutink Jr. (Spring Valley)

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