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Local Producer Finding Success with Cover Crops

By Kris Ethridge, Resource Conservationist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Manhattan, Kansas


When Tim Bell started farming full time in 2010, he explored practices that would enhance wildlife habitat since much of the land in his operation is leased for hunting. Through reading research articles and observing the successes of his neighbors, he realized the potential benefits that a no-till system can have on the ecology of the soil. Concerned for his farm’s ecosystem, Mr. Bell decided to implement 100 percent no-till on his 650-acre farm in southeast Mitchell County.

Upon attending the No-Till on the Plains Conference, Mr. Bell heard about the potential additional benefits that cover crops could provide his operation. Being proactive, he decided to give it a try on his own farm, which at the time consisted of two primary rotations: corn/soybeans and wheat/wheat/milo/soybeans. His initial trials with cover crops included over-wintering annual ryegrass prior to drilling soybeans. Mr. Bell noticed a positive impact on his yields right away. Even with drought conditions, he noted a yield bump where the annual ryegrass was planted. Table 1 shows the results of one field where ryegrass was planted prior to soybeans in 2012. In this particular field, the yield results also seemed to indicate that a later termination of the ryegrass may have resulted in an additional yield bump. While the exact reason for the increased yields is hard to pinpoint, Mr. Bell credits increased organic matter and the corresponding increased water-holding capacity for this success. He also noticed substantial weed suppression from the ryegrass residue. These results have led Mr. Bell to try cover crops on all of his acres in any fallow window with at least 30 days of available growing season.

Table 1.

Cover Crop Harvest Population Plot Weight (lbs) Harvest Moisture Row Length (ft) Row Width (in) Rows Harvested Test Weight Soybean Yield
No rye 110,000 1860 9.5 1573 7.5 48 58.8 29.8
Early killed rye 110,000 2184 9.2 1495 7.5 48 58.8 36.9
Late killed rye 110,000 2074 10.3 1288 7.5 48 57.2 40.2

One of the biggest challenges noted by Mr. Bell is trying to find the “sweet spot” for terminating the cover crop. “If killed too early, you don’t get the benefit you are after, if too late you can lose a lot of moisture,” said Bell.

Mr. Bell’s advice to others interested in trying to incorporate cover crops into their rotation would be to talk to other producers who are trying cover crops and then try it out on a small scale until you know it’s right for you. “Some years it will hurt you, but other years it will outweigh the loss. Use your own trials to convince yourself that it works and that there are long-term benefits.”

For more information on soil health, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county USDA Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov). Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.