by Jane Primerano

The deterioration of the soil that resulted from monoculture replacing strict rotation on most farms can be ameliorated by the correct choice of cover crops Jon Stutzman of Stutzman Crop Care, Inc., told farmers at the No-Till & Cover Crop Winter Conference of North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development held Dec. 13 at Hawk Pointe Golf Club.

Stutzman noted modern markets don’t provide an incentive to rotate. On top of that, modern manure management eliminates the introduction of carbon-rich bedding which stabilizes nitrogen in the soil.

Choosing the proper cover crop can feature complicated equations, Stutzman said. Factors such as the dates the farmer must plant, planting methods and the cost of various cover crops must be considered. Each farmer must determine if the goal is to fix nitrogen in the soil and if he needs to reduce compost, among other things.

Stutzman discussed a few possibilities in his break-out session, such as soybean-wheat multi species cover, a corn/small grain cover or no-till soybean. He noted each can be effective, but multi species tends to be the best.

Date of planting is very important. For early planting covers (July-August) legumes may produce the best return, but for mid-season (September-October) a mix of annual rye grass, clover and radishes, possibly enhanced by barley has the advantage of low seed cost. The advantage to oats is they don’t have to be terminated. Late planting (November) wheat or rye may not afford cover until spring and may not be worth the cost and effort, Stutzman said.

How the seeds for the cover crop go in also matters, he said.

Seeding from the air is both expensive and produces inconsistent results. Broadcast seed by a ground seeder is fast and fine for small grains. A grain drill creates better seed/soil contact and saves money and time, Stutzman advised.

He recommended rye vs. wheat when it comes to small grains. It is most aggressive and produces the most biomass. However, it might require earlier spring termination. He pointed out legumes aren’t a great cover crop because fall growth is minimal, but they are good for fixing nitrogen if given enough time in the soil.

He also said any cover with a small root mass helps with soil compaction. In some locations radishes reduce compaction and the scavenging of nitrogen.

Many farmers like to use saved seeds, but Stutzman warmed it is necessary to know where they came from and that they don’t contain pigweed or water hemp.

Stutzman takes his own advice on his family’s crop farm in Kutztown, he said.