Should I Plant Green?

Whether we are presenting webinars, publishing farmer business cases, or just having everyday conversations with our SHP farmers, one topic seems to come up over and over again:

Should I plant green or not?

Planting green – when a cash crop is planted directly into a still-growing cover crop, instead of terminating the cover crop first – always sparks a lot of conversation. Some farmers are big proponents, while others are more skeptical. Based on preliminary data from our SHP farmers, approximately 37% planted green in spring 2020 (although, in some states, it was as high as 75%), which is an increase from 2019.

Over the course of this three-part blog series, we will be sharing considerations for planting green, benefits and drawbacks to this practice and – if you do choose to plant green – what you should keep in mind from an equipment standpoint.

Remember: soil health approaches, including whether or not to plant green, should be based on your farm goals and practical logistics. With the information in this series, we hope to provide the information that helps you feel more confident in making those decisions.

Why do farmers plant green? 

After decades of planting into a clean seed bed, you might be wondering: Why would farmers want to plant while there’s still another crop in the ground? The reasons are many, but here are a handful of the ones that come up most frequently:

  • A farmer misses the window to terminate (kill) the cover crop, leaving too much undecomposed residue on the surface and complicating planting.
  • You want to maximize cover crop biomass to help with goals of building organic matter in the long-term.
  • To ensure that early season troublesome or herbicide-resistant weeds have as much competition as possible before your herbicide plan goes into effect.
  • To increase water infiltration by allowing for more root growth.
  • In wetter fields, planting green may help soils dry out since much of the moisture will be pulled up into the plant for a longer period of time.
  • You can do one less herbicide pass, since you don’t have a pre-plant burndown pass.
  • You can get out in the field sooner if the field has drier soils, due to the cover crops pulling out excess moisture.

There is also the possibility that planting green may lead to warmer soils in the early spring; we are gathering data on soil temperatures as part of our SHP Field Check process to better measure this.

What are the benefits of planting green?

Among farmers who have planted green – either on purpose or because of timing pressures – they have seen several benefits, both around soil health and from a logistical standpoint:

  • Soil health improvements, including:
    • Higher organic matter when biomass is maximized
    • Increased soil respiration, soil carbon and more active microbial communities
    • Living roots year-round provide food source for microbes
  • Farmers are able to plant sooner when soils are warmer and drier earlier in the spring
  • When soils are covered nearly 100% of the time, some farmers are seeing weed control benefits since the cover crop competes with noxious weeds
  • Erosion control comes from having living roots in the soil nearly all year long (depending on the time of cover crop planting in the fall)
  • Better habitat for pollinators like insects, butterflies and birds
  • Allowing cover crops to salvage essential plant nutrients longer with deeper roots can bring those nutrients into the root zone earlier in the season so the cash crop can access them

What are some of the drawbacks of planting green?

While there are benefits to this approach, there are also some drawbacks that should be considered in terms of how they impact your farm. These include:

  • You may have to adjust or invest in equipment. (We’ll be going into this further in a future post.)
  • There is the possibility that you miss the right termination window, which could cause problems with cash crop emergence, or you don’t fully terminate the cover crop and it persists through the whole growing season.
  • You may find there is a lack of knowledge about planting green in the local agriculture community to help you troubleshoot, so you might have to reach out beyond local agronomic experts.

Digging In

Planting green isn’t for everyone, but it does have benefits for some farms. Consider how this information matches up with your goals and logistics. Is planting green worth thinking about, or does it not fit your management system? And, in our next post, Keith Byerly will be sharing the equipment considerations to take into account if you do want to plant green.

21. John Stewart – Innovative Approaches to Cover Crop Seeding

It’s no secret that, when it comes to cover crop seeding, farmers are always trying to balance a tight timeline and impending weather in the fall. Especially during wet or cold autumns, getting into the field in a timely manner after cash crop harvest – and being able to give your cover crop enough time to germinate and emerge before winter – can be a challenge.

But what if you could streamline processes by planting your cover crop while you are already in the field doing other things?

In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, host John Mesko sits down with SHP Field Manager John Stewart to discuss a new project in Kentucky seeking to answer that exact question.

“A lot of farmers buy their cover crop seed and have a great goal of getting harvest done earlier and being able to get out there and drill it in or broadcast it in or maybe apply it with a VT tool,” Stewart says. “But farmers understand how tight timing is in the fall and that window closes very rapidly.”

In order to help farmers save time and reduce passes across the field, SHP is studying new and different approaches to cover crop seeding. The project is funded by a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) and done in partnership with Kentucky NRCS and The Nature Conservancy. Stewart says the partners are really focused on the “innovation” part of the CIG program.

“We wanted to take a look at cover crop seeding methods that might be a little bit different than what a lot of farmers are doing,” he says. “Each farmer is different with their goals. A few of these trials are going to be looking at seeding cover crops with a cover crop seeder unit that’s actually mounted on the combine [body]. One of the farmers has a focus of a good amount of biomass for livestock grazing. And some of the others are more looking at the erosion side, getting a cover crop established pretty quickly to help [reduce erosion].”

To hear more about the details of the SHP program in Kentucky and the data we are collecting, listen to the full episode of The People of Soil Health in the player above or in your favorite podcast player.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are a secondary crop or crop mix typically grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil, but not necessarily for profit

Benefits and considerations

A cover crop can:

  • Keep a living root in the soil for longer in the year
  • Provide ground cover
  • Increase biodiversity in the cropping system
  • Decrease erosion
  • Increase weed control
  • Improve nutrient cycling
  • Sequester carbon
  • Reduce nutrient leaching and runoff
  • Produce additional livestock feed and increase the amount of grazing days

Consider these questions before planting cover crops:

  • What is the ideal time frame to plant the cover crop?

  • What is our end goal for incorporating cover crops?

  • What equipment do we already have, or can we easily acquire?

  • What does our current cropping system look like?

  • What is our tolerance for risk?

  • How does the region we live in affect the types of cover crops that are likely to be successful?

Many variables affect the amount of cover crop growth and its potential impact on the next year’s cash crop. Most current recommendations are based on small trials and individual experiences, which means there is trial and error involved.

SHP supports farmers who choose cover crops that improve the long-term health and profitability of their farms. The SHP field team is available to assist farmers’ understanding of how to adopt cover crops successfully on their farm.

SHP supports farmers who choose cover crops that improve the long-term health and profitability of their farms. The SHP field team is available to assist farmers’ understanding of how to adopt cover crops successfully on their farm.

Categories of cover crops

Cover crops fall into one of four main categories based on their growing pattern:

winter-hardy

Winter Hardy

  • These cover crops are generally established in the fall, will live through the winter, and add more growth in the spring.
  • Winter-hardy crops do not always have to be terminated before planting the next cash crop in the spring, but this varies depending on your growing region.
  • Winter-hardy crops include cereal rye, wheat, triticale, barley, and hairy vetch.
conditional-winter-hardy

Conditional Winter Hardy

  • The ability of these covers to overwinter is primarily determined by planting date.
  • Late summer to early fall planting ensures that the plants are able to become well-established before a killing frost and continue growing in the spring
  • Conditional winter-hardy species include annual ryegrass, rapeseed, clovers, and most legumes.
winter-kill

Winter Kill

  • These cover crops terminate due to cold temperatures.
  • Many require temperatures in the lower twenties to high teens for termination.
  • Winter-kill cover crops have the potential to overwinter, depending on the snowfall.
  • Winter-kill species include oats, turnips, and radishes.
summer-annual

Summer Annual

  • The cover crops in this category are heat-driven and are typically planted early to mid-summer.
  • Because summer annuals cannot handle frost or freezing temperatures, they should not be planted in the fall.
  • Summer annuals are often planted as a mix and used for grazing, harvested forage, reducing extreme compaction, or prevented planting acres.
  • Summer annuals include sorghum, sudangrass, sorghum-sudangrass, buckwheat, millet, and sunn hemp.

You can find a print version of this informational resource by clicking the button below.

Find Out More

Learn more about how SHP farmers are using and implementing cover crops by checking out our most recent Cover Crop Planting Report.

20. Jason Lay – Making the Most of the Resources You Have

Many farmers would look at Jason Lay’s operation in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. and count him as one of the lucky ones. Rich, productive soils. Supportive landowners. Neighbors who are interested in what he’s doing on his farm. But, according to Jason, that doesn’t mean he can get complacent.

I’ll just start it off by saying this isn’t our grandfather’s farm anymore. It’s not cows and plows. We’re a lot more complex. We’ve got a lot more technology. We’ve got a lot more tools at our disposal,” he said in this conversation with SHP Senior Director John Mesko on The People of Soil Health Podcast. “And with that said, our consumers are a lot more educated as well. So we not only need to be telling our story – [we need to be] doing the right things and being sustainable to make sure that we’re leaving the ground in a lot better place than when we found it.”

For Jason, that means implementing conservation practices like no-till and strip-till, as well as working with Soil Health Partnership on a cover crop trial. Throughout all of his approaches, he’s looking for ways to feed a crop and build soil health most efficiently.

“The main reason behind the strip-till is to band the nutrients and be absolutely as efficient as I can possibly get with where I put those nutrients. And I don’t want that corn plant trying to search for its groceries per se,” he shared. And when it comes to his SHP trial, “What I’m trying to do is basically analyze, through the use of cover crops: is it changing the soil health of that field relative to what would have been my more conventional practices?”

Jason knows he’s fortunate, which is why he continues to invest in improving his land and making the most of what he has.

“I use a very simple motto: do more with less. It’s so simple, but yet it’s so true. Why do you need to make your life any more complex than it already is? I have to wear I don’t know how many hats throughout the course of the year and I needed to learn how to do more with less.”

To listen to Jason’s and John’s full discussion, check out The People of Soil Health Podcast in the player above or subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player.

19. Mikayla Tabert – Diversification and Innovation are Key at Trinity Creek Ranch

If you could choose only three words to describe Trinity Creek Ranch in Red Lake Falls, Minn., you would probably land somewhere in the realm of diversification, innovation and family.

That combination of values is why we’re so glad to have Mikayla Tabert from Trinity Creek join us on The People of Soil Health Podcast. The farm – which was started by Mikayla’s grandfather in the 1950s and now includes her husband and parents – raises everything from 150 cow-calf pairs to a diverse crop rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, peaola, alfalfa, cereal rye and sunflowers.

“We’ve got a lot going on but, with the four of us working, it does help to manage that,” Mikayla says. “[Diversification] helps us be a lot more resilient. You know what crop commodity prices can be like, or you get a wet year, dry year, certain crops do better than others. We like having that diverse mix so that we can have a fail-safe. And if all else fails, we always have the cattle.”

Trinity Creek Ranch enrolled in their SHP trial in 2019 with goals to build soil organic matter and decrease the amount of synthetic inputs applied. In their first two seasons, Mikayla says, they’ve already started learning a lot, including the impact of cover crops on weed control and how a wider variety of soil tests can be used to measure success and change over time.

“Our goal is to have that healthy functioning soil that doesn’t need a bunch of inputs to have a productive crop.”

Learn more about Trinity Creek Ranch’s approach to soil health by clicking the player above or listening to this episode in your favorite podcast player.

You can also keep up with the activities at Trinity Creek Ranch on their Facebook page or by following Mikayla and her dad, David, on Twitter.

17. Ben Gleason – Soil Health Awareness is ‘Mission Accomplished’ at IA Corn

Iowa Corn has several major goals that drive programs and projects for their sustainability platform:

  1. Protect and improve the land, water, and natural resources
  2. Minimize regulations on farmers that could potentially reduce profitability
  3. Maintain farmers’ social license to operate
  4. Be a leader in sustainability, making sure that sustainability is a part of all programming

Ben Gleason, Sustainable Program Manager for Iowa Corn, gets the opportunity to work for Iowa farmers on all of these goals, leveraging partnerships with different stakeholders to move the needle on sustainability in the agriculture industry.

One area he is focusing on is reduced tillage. Tillage changes are one opportunity for farmers to impact on-farm sustainability and have become more prominent as awareness increases. Gleason says the state isn’t all no-till by any means, but is seeing strip-till gain in popularity as it is often “the best of both worlds” – tillage where you need it and residue everywhere you don’t.

Regarding cover crops, Gleason said, “We have seen a big, big jump in cover crops, which is fantastic. We went from virtually zero acres to about two million acres. I think we’ll be well over that this year with an early harvest that will allow more cover crop acres to get seeded.”

Iowa farmers are also experimenting with other practices, like nutrient reduction wetlands, which Gleason says are effective to manage nitrogen loss.

“We’re making progress. We have got a long way to go. Obviously, our water quality issues didn’t pop up overnight, so we’re not planning to solve them overnight either. But we have got a lot of momentum going, and we would like to keep it that way,” he said.

Iowa Corn also has a history of connecting Iowa farmers with the Soil Health Partnership, with both organizations really stressing farmer-to-farmer, peer-to-peer learning. They believe that works best.

“Soil health awareness is huge now. I think that mission is accomplished. [Soil health is] part of the decision-making process now, I believe,” he said.

Learn more about Iowa Corn’s specific water quality and sustainability programming, as well as how they are facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning during a global pandemic, by clicking on the player above or listening to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.

Cover Crop Lessons from an Iowa Farmer: Take Your Time

When Roger Zylstra and his son Wesley started experimenting with cover crops on their central Iowa farm in 2014, they weren’t exactly sure what to expect. They had a goal to improve stewardship of their land and resources but, at the time, didn’t really know where that would take them. Their experiment – cereal rye before soybeans – seemed to be yielding benefits, but they wanted more hard data. So, in 2015, Roger enrolled in an SHP cover crop trial to better understand the impact of this management practice on their farming operation.

Roger and Wesley’s experience with SHP is detailed in a new business case, sharing where they started and what they have learned after conducting their trial for five years. Below are some of the Zylstras’ key learnings. Dig into the full business case to find out more.

Build soil health in a way that works for your farm

In addition to growing corn and soybeans, they also raise hogs on the Zylstra farm. The incorporation of livestock makes manure an important source of nutrients for their cash crops, and it was something Roger and Wesley considered when choosing to implement cover crops.

“We’re working to continue to be competitive with our yields, while striving to improve the health of our soil,” Roger said. “Because we have swine and fall-apply the manure, we think cover crops really help sequester the nitrogen to the soil.”

They chose cereal rye as their cover crop species specifically because of its ability to withstand disturbance caused by injecting manure, recognizing that it bounces back quickly with minimal impact to the stand. Cereal rye also overwinters well, which provides ground coverage and nutrient uptake throughout the fall and spring.

It is okay to make changes over time

Roger knows how easy it can be to want to make all the changes at once, but his experience with SHP taught him that it can be valuable to make incremental shifts – evaluating your results and then adapting accordingly.

Here are just a few of the things that have changed in the Zylstras’ approach since 2015:

  • Eliminated use of fall anhydrous and incorporated spring pre-plant and sidedress applications
  • Adjusted cover crop seeding rates
  • Experimented with different methods of cover crop seeding (switching to drilling for a few years before returning to spreading/incorporation with vertical tillage)
  • Moved to 100% liquid application of fertilizer
  • Experimented with planting green

Each of these adjustments from year-to-year allowed them to dial in their system in a way that best met their unique needs around labor, time, and equipment resources. You can read more about the specific reasons for these changes in their business case.

Small changes add up to real benefits

By staying committed to building soil health, making incremental changes, and experimenting with different approaches, the Zylstras have seen real benefits to their farming operation. Some of the biggest takeaways include: 

  • Improved nutrient use efficiency – By changing the sources and timing of nitrogen application, they see greater utilization by the crop and reduced leaching of nutrients into the waterways. According to Roger, “We use about the same amount of nitrogen per acre as we did many years ago, but our average [corn] yields have grown from 140-170 bu/acre to 170-200 bu/acre.
  • Increased microbial activity – Results from soil health testing on their SHP field shows that respiration (an indicator of microbial activity) has increased significantly on the cover cropped portion of the field, aiding in an improved rate of residue turnover on those acres.
  • Improved soil structure – The Zylstras credit improvements in soil structure with reducing soil surface compaction during the wet years of 2018 and 2019. In comparison to nearby farms (who faced standing water and ruts in the field), Roger and Wesley experienced fewer equipment tracks and less ponding. At times, it has also allowed them to get into the field a day or two earlier during planting and harvest. 

Digging In

When it comes to building soil health, no two farms are exactly the same. However, there are things we can learn from each other as we experiment, adapt, and experience success. Farmers who leverage manure as a primary source of nutrients can see from the Zylstras’ SHP program one way to implement cover crops and things to take into consideration when getting started. And, no matter what your system looks like, Roger’s advice to take it day-by-day and season-by-season – adjusting your practices over time to find the approach that works best for you and your farm – is something we can all learn from.

15. Lisa Kubik – Taking Consistent, Incremental Steps to Build Soil Health

For Lisa Kubik, SHP Field Manager in eastern Iowa, learning about soil health is a two-way street.

“Honestly,” she says, “Working with SHP, I learn as much from my farmers…as they probably learn from me, which is really unique and really neat.”

One of those farmers is Roger Zylstra from central Iowa, who has been conducting an on-farm research trial for the past five years, and is featured in a new SHP business case. In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, Lisa sits down with Senior Director John Mesko to talk about what the Zylstras have been learning and how that information can be used by other farmers.

“There are so many ways to do soil health and improve your conservation on your farm. And there’s really no [one] right way to do it,” Lisa says. “It all depends on your current…operations, how you manage your system. Being open-minded and being flexible is really part of the most important thing when increasing conservation and increasing the soil health on your farm.”

In their discussion, John and Lisa also dive into how her family is implementing soil health practices on their own farm, including reduced tillage, cover crops, and rotational cattle grazing.

Listen to the entire conversation at the link above or subscribe to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.

Zeb Zuehls

Zuehls Farms is centuries old but has undergone many transitions throughout the years. It was once a very diversified farm with chickens, pigs, and dairy. Then the farm was dairy-only, until about 20 years ago when the family decided to shift their attention to crops. Most recently, Zeb added a small beef herd.

Zeb, his dad and his wife and children now focus on making the land the best they can for the corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and small grains they grow. This means experimenting with cover crops to discover which species will work best in his area, which has a short growing season of about 140 days.

“As part of Soil Health Partnership, we grow cover crops to improve our soils, increase organic matter, and, ultimately, be better stewards of the land,” Zeb said. “I also want to make our land the best I can if my kids choose to farm.”

With heavy rain events the past few years, Zeb says that, since implementing soil health practices, he’s noticed a great reduction in the amount of soil erosion and nutrient loss. He has also noticed improvement in the soil structure. These changes will help him accomplish the goal of leaving the land in the best possible shape for the next generation.

Zeb joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2016. He was already interested in different methods of tillage and implementing cover crops, but SHP has given him a farmer network to share information and the confidence to try “different things that I would have never dreamed of doing.”

“The sky is the limit on soil health. If you don’t try it, you won’t know if it does or does not work,” said Zeb.