Eileen Kladivko, agronomy professor at Purdue University, discusses cover crops at the Corn Belt Seed Conference. Kladivko said that cover crop interest and adoption has been on the rise across the Midwest
Eileen Kladivko, agronomy professor at Purdue University, discusses cover crops at the Corn Belt Seed Conference. Kladivko said that cover crop interest and adoption has been on the rise across the Midwest
INDIANAPOLIS — Picking the right cover crop can be confusing for first-time users, but there are questions farmers can ask to find the right crop.

Purdue University agronomy professor Eileen Kladivko offered her cover crop advice at the Corn Belt Seed Conference in Indianapolis. Kladivko said the most important question to ask is: “What do you want the cover crop to do?”

“No one cover crop will meet all possible purposes that a person might have in the field,” she said. “We need to evaluate what you want it to do.”

Purposes for cover crops include nitrogen scavenging, nitrogen production, erosion reduction, soil health improvement, soil moisture conservation, nutrient recycling, weed control, pest protection and long-term yield growth.

Once farmers choose the purpose they are trying to achieve, they can better make management decisions.

“I have a couple suggestions for people who want to know what to plant,” Kladivko said. “My personal favorite cover crop is an oats and daikon radish mix for corn.

“As long as beans come out on the early side, they are excellent nitrogen scavengers, and they both winter-kill. If you’re nervous about green cover crops for corn, it is an excellent choice because they are dead before planting.”

She said that cereal rye in a corn-before-soybean system is a good choice. It can be planted late and still do well, and if the rye gets out of hand and ties up nitrogen, it won’t affect soybeans.

Good cover crop mixes could include a legume, grass and a brassica. The legumes provide diversified root systems, and the grasses provide top growth. Brassicas are used for diversity and as a nitrogen scavenger.

“You also have to consider the current cropping system, whether it is till or no-till, what time windows are available and what soils and climates there are,” Kladivko said.

“Sometimes people get discouraged when they try cover crops for the first or second time and don’t have that much growth. I think there can be quite a bit of benefits from cover crops even with modest amounts of growth.”

The root systems are often more important than the number of shoots, she said. While top growth is good for forage or weed control, root systems help improve soils, erosion and water quality.

Kladivko recommended the Midwest Cover Crops Council website, which includes a cover crop selector tool.

“There’s been a huge surge in interest, as well as adoption of cover crops,” she said. “Whether you’re selling cover crops or not, corn or soybean producers have become very interested in cover crops and are asking for information on it. I think it’s a business opportunity to help service those growers who have questions.”

As people get excited about cover crops, they should know that cover crops are part of a system, Kladivko said.

Folks are going to need to adapt their entire system for growing cover crops. They may need to change nutrient management or tweak the tillage or no-tillage system.

“They need to do their homework if they are considering cover crops,” Kladivko said.

“The rationale is to make better use of the resources we have here in the Midwest that we’re not taking advantage of now. It’s basically to have something living and growing during the time of the year where we typically have nothing growing.”

Having a plant photosynthesizing, sequestering carbon, aiding soil microorganisms, recycling nutrients and building soils can be beneficial, even if it is not a cash crop.

For more information about the cover crop selector tool, visit www.mccc.msu.edu/selectorINTRO.html.