Over the years I have had several growers ask me “Do cover crops work?” Usually, my follow-up statement is “It depends.” Cover crops are a broad subject that can be somewhat complicated to understand at times. So it’s never too early to start doing your homework for 2021.
But first and foremost, a grower must ask themselves “Why am I using a cover crop?” and “Is the selected species of cover crop going to accomplish the goals I have?” Several times I have seen growers struggle with cover crops because they were using the wrong species or seeding rates (too thick or thin stands) for their goals. Others have experienced more challenges with planting or termination methods than they expected. All of these potential challenges are considerations as to whether or not a cover crop will be successful and should be implemented on a grower’s farm in future years.
Question 1: Why am I using a cover crop? (Write down your reason)
  • To protect my soil during heavy rain events during the winter and early spring?
  • To suppress waterhemp in my bean field?
  • To suppress marestail in my bean field?
  • To improve soil health?
  • To capture extra nitrogen?
  • My neighbors are doing it.
Question 2: How will I seed the cover crop? (Be prepared to make changes in the operation and think differently)
  • Drill after harvest
  • Spread seed with combine
  • Fly on prior to harvest
  • Spread on with fertilizer pre- or post-harvest
  • Air seed and tillage tool
Question 3: How will I terminate the cover crop? (Again, be prepared to make changes in your operation and think differently)
  • Winter kill
  • Spring pre-planting burndown
  • Spring post-planting burndown
  • Spring pre-planting crimping
  • Spring post-planting crimping
  • Spring crimping attachment on planter
  1. Make sure you know your mix and have the correct species and rates for your goals.
  2. Order seed supply needs from a quality and reputable source.
  3. Don’t wait until it is time to plant to request your needs; there may not be a supply when you’re ready.
  4. Develop a game plan, write it down and get all parties on the same page (operation vs. supply).
  5. Be willing to make changes to your operation so that a cover crop will successfully achieve your goals.

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About the Author: Todd Steinacher

Steinacher is an ISA CCA Soy Envoy alum and currently supports ISA on agronomic content as well as serving as an Illinois CCA board member. He was recently awarded the 2020 IL CCA of the Year & the 2021 International CCA of the Year. He has over 15 years agronomic experience, currently working with AgriGold and GROWMARK previously. Steinacher has an associate degree from Lincoln Land Community College, a B.S. in agronomy and business from Western Illinois University and a master’s degree in crop science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.