Cover crops

Cover crops are beneficial in a row crop operation: (1) they reduce wind and soil erosion over the winter since the soil is left undisturbed, (2) they increase the organic matter in the soil in the following year when the plant material is incorporated into the topsoil, (3) they sequester excess nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, and (4) they  compete with weeds in the following spring.

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Winter rye cover crop growing in standing corn on October 11, 2013. The rye was sown by airplane on September 7 when the ground was hard and dry. There were even numerous cracks in the earth due to the drought (one of my neighbors joked that all the rye seed had probably dropped down the deep cracks). A few days later we got over an inch of rain which helped the rye seed germinate.

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Harvest is underway on October 25, 2013. The rye cover crop is growing well between the harvested rows.

On September 7 we aerial-seeded winter rye into standing corn. Six days later, after a rain, the rye seed had started germinating. On October 11, when I took these photos, the rye was growing well. The corn will soon be harvested and then we will see how well the rye is established. Winter rye will continue to grow again in the spring, unlike oats, so by planting time 2014 we should have a well established stand of rye.

One of our intentions, of course, is to improve the water quality in the water that flows off of our farm into Alleman Creek, which is a tributary in the Four Mile Creek Watershed. Our cover crop is a small step that should contribute in two ways: (1) reduce surface runoff into Alleman Creek in the event of a heavy downpour  and (2) sequester (capture) excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the fertilizer that is applied annually to the row crop ground. Practical Farmers of  Iowa has produced a number of information sheets on cover crops which help us to understand their challenges and benefits.

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