The first few days of October, I saw winter rye sprouting nicely while I was driving through some Central New York counties. This encouraged me, since it appears that more and more corn growers are planting fall cover crops.

Crop Comments: Let’s Take Advantage of Winter’s Soil WarmthThe more productive title for these late season plantings is “winter forage,” a mindset which acknowledges that something beneficial is taking place under snow – namely, that certain plants can put to good use the geothermal warmth generously provided by Mother Nature.

Granted, the cover crop/winter forage is hanging onto soil, but it’s also gearing up to have a running start on the next growing season, starting when snow melts next spring. It’s a lot easier to plant winter forage like rye, triticale, wheat, speltz and even barley once corn silage has been harvested (at least, easier compared to planting these crops after corn has been combined).

By the time shell corn has been harvested, soil and air may be too cold to get even these “cold-footed” crops to effectively sprout and create root reserves before winter really takes hold.

A big advantage of the winter annual sod provided by these small grain crops is that they offer their grower something firm to drive on, especially when spreading manure. Thus nurtured, this living mat of green vegetation makes a much better driving surface – one that can absorb a lot of water compared to the all-too-common rows of mud lying between rows of very dead corn stubble. Manure that’s late-autumn spread on corn stubble just lays there until spring, unless it gets washed away with a serious snow melt and/or heavy, untimely rainfall.

A lot of land that was farmed until a few years ago was abandoned for many different reasons. Maybe we can start reclaiming derelict land before trees take over. Let’s start by brush-hogging fallow hay (often on a piece of rental ground that didn’t get mowed at all this past growing season, or at least as much as the owner would have liked). Maybe it didn’t even get mowed for the last two or three years. Sometimes absentee landowners want a year-round crop person to cut their hay, not charging any rent for their land. Or the non-absentee landowner may accept some of the hay crop as rent to feed their livestock. Usually, those landowners can enjoy an agricultural property tax break as their cropland is annexed to the crop program of a full-time farmer.

Left unmowed, that standing vegetation usually ends up as a thatchy mess, a medium for mold. Come spring, new vegetation has to work its way through those rotting materials after snow melts.

We need to get dead plant materials like chopped-up goldenrod and burdock to actually contact the soil. This way they can self-compost under the influence of geothermal warmth. Think about how a field, under a foot or more of snow in January, remains unfrozen enough for a tractor and manure spreader to get extremely mired. This occurrence often results in manure being piled in an unplanned fashion. Despite this manure mishap, geothermal warmth should be thought of as a friend to dairy/crop people. These formerly living materials are well on their way to becoming food for plants appearing next spring.

The meadow in question may not have been harvested because it stayed too wet all growing season. But if brush-hogged this autumn, it will begin to decompose under the snow this winter. Mulched vegetation decays and starts contributing OM by the time fields start greening up in April.

As soil OM increases due to this self-composting, its moisture-holding capacity also increases. Many agronomy enthusiasts like myself consider healthy OM to be a water reservoir as well as a carbon sequestration tool.

Speaking of water, sometimes a field with less than perfect drainage gets wetter than necessary for the following reason: the soil receives an acceptable amount of moisture, generally three to 3.5 inches of monthly precipitation in most of the Northeast. But if the OM is depleted, which I define as less than 4%, and the soil nutrition is lacking, much of that moisture which could have supported a five ton/acre hay crop stays in the ground. This is because other nutrients were limiting. In this situation, desirable vegetation is meager, the ground unnecessarily moist and Mother Nature sends weeds to help hang onto her soils. Determining these nutrient shortfalls involves soil testing.

The presence of these weeds is a type of soil test in its own right. Weeds tell the crop person that certain soil nutrients are lacking. Moreover, if these nutrients weren’t deficient, the more finicky crops, particularly clovers – many of whose seeds are already in the soil bank under foot – would feel “invited to the party.”

A few hundred yards from my home is a piece of flat, well-drained land just above the Otego Creek flood plain. Five years ago it grew excellent corn for silage. That year, fertilizer was applied to feed the crop, not the soil. The following year the field lay fallow for non-agronomic reasons. The year after that, weeds took over the hungry, compacted soil. In their number, I identified goldenrod, milkweed, giant foxtail, plaintain, curly dock, mullein, carpetweed, horse nettle, bull thistle and pokeweed. The “fruits” of pokeweed and horse nettle (also called wild tomato) are toxic.

Now is a good time to start lining up shorter season corn varieties for growing season 2024. These days, shorter season corn varieties don’t see the yield depression compared to longer season varieties the way they did a half-century ago, when I was a field crops Extension agent. A 100-day corn may out-yield an 80-day corn by 5% – 10% if early fall frosts don’t dictate otherwise. But the shorter season corn will provide a better shot at establishing the successful winter forage crop that I’ve been preaching about for most of this column.