Cover Crop Fail Brings ‘Aha’ Moment

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Cover crops are a challenge every year, requiring flexibility and an open mind.

Think Different

Mike Starkey has learned the hard way that the key to farming with no-till and cover crops includes staying flexible and rolling with the punches.

  • Take care of drainage issues before going no-till as tiling later will disturb the soil and often require tillage to level over tile lines.
  • Don’t rush the practice, whether terminating a cover crop or planting into no-till. Don’t be impatient.
  • Don’t rely on the experts when you can do on-farm research to find practices that work for you and your soils.
  • Look for the aha moments when a problem becomes a solution, such as discovering that planting into green, growing cover crops can produce exceptional yields.

Mike Starkey’s cover crop termination program failed him this past spring. His early burndown on acres going into soybeans was followed by a cold front that shut down his cover crop mix of annual ryegrass and rape for a week when it should have been taking up the glyphosate. Then it started raining. By the time the rain stopped Starkey had yet to burndown the mix of annual rye, rape, crimson, radishes and peas on fields going into corn. The diverse cover crop was thick, heavy and still green and the rye was headed out. Starkey, his farming partner Jeff and their sons Nick and Zack (respectively) got busy on their farm near Indianapolis.

Green planting worked

“We started planting the same day we sprayed,” says Starkey. “The corn just blew out of the ground. It emerged in 7 to 10 days and the annual rye was like a thick mulch between the rows and headed out. We had great weed control and a super stand of corn. It was an ‘aha’ moment. From now on, we have the confidence to plant our corn and soybeans into standing, green cover crops if the opportunity exists.”

A long time no-tiller and a cover crop promoter, Starkey had his corn planter ready for the challenge. Equipped with Dawn GFX row cleaners, Dawn’s factory equipped automatic down pressure on the planting units, and Dawn Gaugetine closing wheels, the John Deere 1795 Max Emerge provided precise spacing and placement depth at 7 1/2 mph.

The right equipment and proper set-up is a lesson Starkey learned early in his no-till years. He went no-till soybeans in 1989, but gave up on no-till corn in the early 1990s, he tried again in 1999 when a friend helped him set up his planter correctly. He has been 100 percent no-till since 2000…until this year.

When attendees at the recent National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health toured the Starkey farm, they saw plenty of healthy no-tilled and cover crop covered fields. They also saw 150 acres of bare ground and some fields without their normal cover crops. The 2015 American Soybean Association Conservation Legacy Award winner explains that drainage patterns changed after a subdivision went in next door and he pattern tiled the ground in 2016.

“We were beating ourselves up with our sprayer and at harvest when the combine crossed rough tile lines, so we hired our neighbor to till the fields and level them out,” explains Starkey. “We are starting over, but with cover crops we’ll be back to a no-till environment sooner than we would without them.”

Weather stopped cover crops

Fields without cover crops this fall were a result of an extremely dry August and September followed by a cold, wet and delayed harvest. He had annual rye and rape seed flown on most corn pre-harvest, with some cereal rye and barley flown on selected fields with marestail issues. However, unlike past years, he did not have the opportunity to drill his soybean acres with his diverse mix. His plan is to fly on cereal or annual rye in a mix with crimson and radishes next spring after it warms up. He will again plant his corn into green cover.

Starkey notes that in 2016, fall applied crimson clover didn’t germinate until spring. “We had unbelievably red fields at planting and when we did our nitrogen strip trials, we saw a good return on the investment, plus added biological activity,” he says. “That’s why I like covers like annual ryegrass. It comes back in the spring and you know the soil microbial life is waking the soil up.”

While Starkey had problems terminating his annual rye this spring, that’s not normally the case with acres going to corn. The key he says is fast growth, the right temperatures and the right water pH for a Roundup application.

“The later you spray the easier it is to terminate,” says Starkey. “If it is not actively growing and you don’t get good termination, it will be harder to terminate later. I carry a pH meter with me and add citric acid to my glyphosate to bring the mix down to a pH of 3.0. With a low pH, it really moves through the plant.”

This was a problem for him when he applied Roundup and Xtendimax on Xtend beans this past year. The dicamba label explicitly warns against lowering the pH as it will defeat the drift control feature. While the dicamba cleared up problem water hemp and marestail on some end rows, he had grass escapes on about 500 acres of soybeans.

“We went back with more Roundup and citric acid and it smoked the grass,” recalls Starkey.

Starkey gives cover crops credit for boosting organic matter by one-half percent over the past six to seven years along with the increased overall soil health. The result is less reliance on commercial fertilizer.

“Our inputs have gone down considerably because the soil is taking care of us,” says Starkey.

Less applied nitrogen

This year he averaged 0.7 lbs of nitrogen per bushel on 165 lbs. made in split applications.  He applies 15 gallon of AgroLiquid’s High NRG-N as his nitrogen source at planting along with an in-furrow application of a safe low salt mix of Agro Liquids Pro Germ and Kalibrate along with a micronutrient package.  The slow release stabilized product supplies the corn with enough N until he can come back with a sidedressed application of 32 percent (60 lbs. N) along with sulfur at V-6. The final application of 60 lb. of N and sulfur is at the VT stage. The sidedress applications are made with 360 Yield Center Y-Drops on a 120-ft. boom sprayer.

“The end rows used to be slaughtered when we pulled a toolbar and tank through them,” says Starkey. “Now we fold back the ends of the sprayer and cover 80 feet with each pass, traveling on tramlines with narrow tires. The Y-Drops place the N next to the corn rows, not in their centers.”

Strip trials of N applications have proven the value of spoon feeding the crop. Starkey reports a 30-bu. yield advantage with the two 60-lb. passes in-crop versus dumping 120 lbs. per acre in a single early pass. Along with improved water infiltration from the no-till/cover crop program, less N, P and K in the field mean less in the stream that bisects many of Starkey’s fields. In-stream super sensors placed upstream and downstream of the fields – combined with tile line sensors and ground water sensors, placed on the farm by a consortium of state and federal agencies and Indiana University – are studying nutrient use and movement.

“Data suggests that there is less nitrogen and phosphorous coming out of our tile lines than there is in the stream as it enters the property,” says Starkey.

Source: Corn and Soybean Digest

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