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Growing cover crops is increasingly a focus
cover crops

GAYS MILLS - Installation of cover crops on no-till farmland, acres primarily used to grow corn and beans, has become an increased focus for the farming and conservation communities. This is because of the many soil building and erosion and runoff control benefits of using cover crops.

“We need to separate the hype from the reality,” said Crawford County UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Vance Haugen. “That’s the beauty of research and science-based information.”

“Yesterday’s rain on frozen, uncovered fields is the clearest example of why cover crops are so important,” Crawford County USDA NRCS District Conservationist Karyl Fritsche pointed out. “Our office has a priority to hold the soil erosion or T value to acceptable limits, and cover crops have a key role to play in that.”

The sharing of research and science-based information was the order of business at the ‘Growing Cover Crop Seed’ education event held at the Gays Mills Community Building on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

The event attracted about 30 interested producers, who heard presentations from university researchers and a farmer who has been growing and marketing cover crop seeds from his farm.

Optimal rotations

John Gaska, Senior Research Agronomist with the ‘Cool Bean’ project at UW-Madison, spoke about the benefits of including a small grain cover crop in your corn and bean rotation. Most of Gaska’s research has been conducted on winter wheat and oat cover crops, with some focus on barley and triticale as well.

“Small grains in a corn and bean rotation can aid in soil building,” Gaska explained. “They can result in a dispersion of labor throughout the year and provide a benefit to subsequent crops.”

Gaska emphasized that there is a big difference between growing small grains as a grain crop versus as a seed crop. He pointed out that seed quality is extremely important if you are producing a cover crop seed versus a grain, especially if it will be sold off the farm where it is produced.

Gaska went into detail about the different kinds of diseases that farmers need to manage for, the critical developmental stages (Feeke’s Scale – F1-F11) that farmers need to be aware of to successfully manage disease, and the rotation where cover crops offer the most benefit to a subsequent crop.

The three developmental stages that Gaska highlighted as most critical are F6, when the first nodes appear above the soil surface in the spring; F8, when the flag leaf is emerging; and F10.5.1, when the grower will need to apply fungicide to prevent development of fusarium head blight (FHB).

The F6 stage is the time when the grower can assess whether his cover crop has been impacted by winterkill. Winterkill can happen when conditions in the winter are very cold, with a lack of snow cover.

“You should count the number of plants in a square foot of row at the F6 stage,” Gaska explained. “If you have 25-30 plants, you’re in great shape.”

The F6 stage is also crucial for applications of many chemicals, which by label requirements, can’t be applied after this stage.

The F8 stage is important because this is when the flag leaf appears. The flag leaf is the highest leaf in the canopy, and is the most important for photosynthesis and high yield. The flag leaf accounts for 50 percent or more of the final yield, and fungicides are applied to protect the flag leaf.

“Scout early for signs of disease,” Gaska said. “By the time you see the signs at F8, it may be too late to respond.”

In addition to FHB, Gaska listed powdery mildew, septoria leaf blotch, and leaf, steam and strip rust as pathologies to watch for.

Gaska said that in his research, the highest benefits for a subsequent crop came from a corn-soy-wheat rotation. The lowest benefits came from a corn-wheat-soy rotation.

“A third crop does not increase corn yield,” Gaska explained. “It is yields of soybeans that are increased by including a small grain in your rotation.”

More information about the Cool Bean research can be found at

Seed storage

Dan Smith, Southwest Regional Specialist with UW-Madison’s Nutrient and Pest Management Program, talked about fertility, pest management and storage considerations for cover crop seed production.

Smith emphasized that it is crucial to test your soil at minimum every three to four years. This is necessary to estimate the nutrients necessary for economically profitable crop production. He recommended the Preplant Soil Nitrate Test, with samples taken in the fall.

Smith talked about different small grains, realistic yield goals and nutrients that each crop has been shown to remove from the soil.

Smith discussed the growing problem of herbicide resistance, and discussed the role of cover crops in reducing use of chemicals and combatting the growth of resistance.

“Italian rye grass, for example, is now showing resistance to five different herbicides,” Smith said. “The resistance has shown up in a total of 14 states so far.”

Smith talked about the different storage methods available for growers of cover crop seed such as Uline bulk bags, Pro Boxes, and even just a gravity wagon.

“It is important to remember, when selecting your storage option, how heavy the seed will be,” Smith emphasized. “Whatever option you select, you will need to carefully monitor temperature to keep the seed dry, but not too dry, and to keep the insects out.”

Smith recommended cleaning the seed thoroughly at harvest, and checking it frequently, in order to successfully store the seed between harvest in July and planting in September or October.

He emphasized that cleaning the crop is extremely important for two reasons. First, removal of debris will increase the quality of the seed during storage. But second, he emphasized that there is an ethic involved in not spreading weed seeds, especially herbicide resistant weed seeds, between farms.

“We recommend a seed test for your cover crop seed,” Smith said. “Specifically, the tests we recommend are for germination and purity.”

Fritsche reminded event participants that for purposes of winterkill, seed must be certified because otherwise the NRCS can’t pay out until the crop is green and growing.

The Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association offers seed analysis services, and a test can cost as little as $27 per test. More information can be found at

Controlling runoff

Joe Schultz, a farmer from Neillsville, spoke to the group about how he has integrated cover crops into his farming operation.

“I’m trying to find innovative ways to improve performance on my farm and keep the family on the farm, farming,” Schultz explained. “I’ve taken over the farm operation from my Dad now, and am starting to make changes here and there.”

Schutz’s family has a history of growing oat cover crops. The family owns an old-fashioned seed cleaning machine, which Schultz says they will continue to use until the old wood bearings break. The have grown, cleaned and sold the cover crop seeds to neighbors for years.

“I like to grow my cover crops in the highly erodible land (HEL) on my property, or in fields where I know I typically don’t get a good yield for my other cash crops,” Schultz said. “I can combine that with a summer manure application, which helps manage summer manure storage.”

Schultz uses cover crops primarily for their soil building properties, and sees their use as a way to break the chemical spray cycle on his land. In addition to harvest for grain or seed, Schultz pointed out that a small field of a small grain cover crop can also serve as an ideal deer plot.

Schultz told the group that he uses SNAP Plus software to try to model the results he is looking for. He provided examples where he had found ways to dramatically reduce soil erosion and phosphorous loss from some of his more erodible land.

Schultz can be reached at, or 715-896-7027.

Upcoming events

A ‘Cover         Crops-Faster & Easier’ event will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 12 to 3 p.m., at Borgen’s Café in Westby, and Wednesday, Feb. 14 at Beezers Bar & Grill in Hillsboro.

The registration deadline is February 1. To register, call 608-637-5480.

The event will show how farmers utilize the problem solving benefits of cover crops.

The event is sponsored by the Vernon County Land Conservation Department, USDA-NRCS, The Wallace Center & Winrock International, the National Wildlife Federation, The Pasture Project and UW-Extension.