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Know the possible drawbacks of cover crops
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor continued showing the marked improvement for all of but portions of Southwest and Northwest Kansas. Wheat is showing the benefits of this moisture and warmer temperatures. Producers continue to make progress with covering winter wheat fields with nitrogen and herbicides. This week promises to be unsettled with normal to below normal temperatures and moisture. The six to ten day outlook (March 18 to 22 has above normal precipitation and normal to above normal temperatures. Looking out eight to 14 days (March 20 to 28) indicates above normal to above normal precipitation and normal to below normal temperatures. The 30 day outlook is for above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation with the ninety day outlook basically near normal for both. Today, let’s finish discussing a hot topic in production agriculture. We have covered what they are and their potential benefits. Now – what are the potential drawbacks?

• If you really commit to planting cover crops, including legumes such as pea species and vetches, it can be pricy, really pricey. Clovers can help and aren’t quite as expensive, however, they typically don’t provide as much bang for the buck as the previously mentioned legumes. This is why some are planting more conventional types such as rye. On the plus side, there should be some help available from the USDA to cover costs, especially in certain areas such as areas with sandier soils.

• For those crops overwintering such as vetches, peas, and winter grass species, they must be terminated. This can be done chemically, mechanically through tillage, or a combination of both. Along with this is needing to determine when to terminate. The longer the growing period, the greater the potential benefits. However, a producer needs adequate time to prepare for the succeeding crop and doesn’t want to deplete the soil of moisture by waiting too long. There are clever ways to avoid this. For example, if you can plant spring oats earlier in the fall so they have adequate time to produce top and root growth (remember they tolerate some fairly cold air temperatures), the oats will normally die, winter kill, and you don’t have to spray or till.  

• Rotational considerations also must be considered to avoid potential insect and disease pressure for succeeding crops. Also of importance is examining your herbicide plan to insure your herbicide history won’t negatively affect your cover crop. Ideally, if you are committed to cover crops, over time the need for herbicides can diminish.  

• To obtain the best, long-term benefits from cover crops, a producer should eliminate tillage. This isn’t feasible for some producers and more difficult for certain crops when planting into heavy residue.

• It can be difficult to get your landlord and sometimes your banker onboard. 

• Finally, rain, or rather a lack of rain can greatly reduce the growth of the cover crop and the succeeding crop.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.