Finding the Right Mix: A Cover Crop Journey

Dec 10, 2020

We have utilized cover crops on our farm in northeastern Kansas for the past several seasons. This has not been an easy task to find the best fit on our farm. Cover crops are not one-size-fits-all.  Farms across the country have different climates, rainfall, soils, and terrain that are all important considerations.

Our journey with cover crops has been across several seasons, experimenting to find the best mixture and planting method for our climate and soils. We are cautious to not use a cover crop that might unintentionally introduce new weeds. Early on, our preference was a mixture of tillage radishes in which the tubers grow deep into the soil and improve compaction problems. The challenge with tillage radishes is to get them planted early enough to get sufficient growth before they winterkill.

Today, we mostly use a rye mixture that can get some growth ahead of winter, grow quickly in the spring, then provide a barrier to weeds after killed off in the spring. Some of the benefits that we have seen from the rye straw include moisture retention for the crop, excellent erosion control, increased organic matter to the soil, and saved herbicide application. We have also seen that it increases biological life in and around the soil, ranging from microbial and earthworms to wildlife and game birds.

As a family farm with limited labor, a challenge that we face is time. There are only so many fields that can be planted to cover crops after harvest to germinate and grow ahead of winter. As you can see, cover crops have been a work in progress on our farm but we have seen great benefits along the journey.

I have lived in farming communities in Colorado, Washington and Kansas, and each area has its own unique challenges to how cover crops might be utilized. What works well for our friends in Illinois does not necessarily work the same on our farm in Kansas, and what works for us in Kansas often doesn’t work on my parents’ farm in Colorado. There are great benefits with cover crops, but the same things don’t work everywhere equally.

“Conservation Conversations” is part of ASA’s December #CoverCropChristmas campaign to highlight the benefits of planting cover crops and the commitment of U.S. soybean growers to conservation measures on their farms. Read Part 1 here.