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Cover crops have  proven to show many benefits, but as farmers begin to implement them into their operations, it can be a big shift in methodology. When moving forward with this new experience, it’s becoming increasingly critical for farmers to give their cover crops as much attention as they would a cash crop.

“When planning soil health systems, we start with all the care that would go into planning a conventional cash crop system. Taking everything into consideration including the type of cover crop, soil type, field history, chemical planning, IPM concerns and crop rotation.” said Southern Illinois Field Manager, Abigail Peterson.

When selecting a cover crop, farmers should think about what goals they want to achieve and work back from there. It can be overwhelming when trying to whittle down a list of every cover crop available. Starting with a goal like erosion or weed control, figuring out how it works in your current cash crop rotation, understanding the management steps for success, and being flexible can help make this decision easier. According to Peterson, this takes a good planning session to understand what farmers want to accomplish and what’s going to work for the year.

An advantage to using a cover crop is the ability to experiment with different cover crop species. Farmers can start with something simple, like cereal rye, and build up to incorporating mixes. Bringing diversity into the rotation is one of the first soil health goals that can be accomplished. When selecting a cover crop, farmers do have to be mindful of many variables. Weather, planting window, and seed costs can all determine what will be cost effective while trying to maximize soil health benefits. Cover crops are a tool that address a different goal than a cash crop, but the same amount of care should be taken to reap the rewards. Using the Midwest Cover Crop Council online decision tool is a good place to start: http://mccc.msu.edu/covercroptool/covercroptool.php

When applying cover crops in your first year start small. “Test it out on small acres, see what works from there, and then go forward adapting what you have learned. Planting date, application method, and seed choice are influential factors in the fall that determine what will work best,” said Peterson. Some farmers have adapted cover crop management decisions within the harvest season. If you know you will have a late harvest for example, aerial application early in the season might work the best.

“One of the greatest advantages to cover crops is the ability to have a crop growing during a fallow period. Breaking up disease cycles and creating variability can make a big impact for an operation,” said Peterson. “In creating a soil health system one of my favorite things to work on is reducing overall risk and maximizing the soils potential to work for you.”

Cover crop benefits can help farmers achieve their management goals by saving soil, building organic matter, sequestering nutrients, suppressing weeds, stimulating biological activity, breaking pest cycles and suppressing disease. As with most cover crops, one goal can often transcend into improving other aspects of soil health. All of these combinations can help narrow down cover crop choices on each field individually.