CATAWISSA, Pa. — When it comes to experimenting with planting corn and soybeans into a living cover crop, Mark Rohrbach isn’t afraid to plant in plain sight.
Rather than hide a cover crop test in a back field to keep any mistakes out of view, Rohrbach takes the opposite approach on his Columbia County farm.
“Put it out in the front 20 and let them see it and call you a failure if it doesn’t work,” he said. “That motivates me.”
During a farmer panel discussion at a soil health field day at Scattered Acres Farm, Rohrbach and several other growers discussed the challenges, and benefits, of planting into a living cover crop.
The event, hosted by the Columbia County Conservation District, was held July 28 — a time of year when anyone who planted green was seeing the results.
“It worked out good this year,” said Dennis Levan, who grows more than 500 acres of corn and soybeans. “Where the tracks of the tractor tires were, it wasn’t a problem when I planted.”
Lucas Criswell began planting into a living cover crop several years ago as a way to counter damage from slugs. The method reduced some of the damage, he said, because the green cover crop gives the slugs something else to eat.
Criswell, who farms 1,000 acres in Lewisburg, rolls his cover crop as he plants and applies a residual herbicide to combat the flush of weeds that occurs after the cover crop dies.
It’s important to get the herbicide down to the soil, he said, and that can be a challenge considering the height of a living cover crop.
The need for a residual herbicide in a living cover crop does prevent Criswell from transitioning his operation to 100% organic.
Still, he is sold on the concept.
“Planting green and working with a cover crop is going to be a huge thing in the future,” he said.
Planting an Armor for the Soil
Tyler Buck, assistant farm manager at Cotner Farms in Danville, has been planting green for the last seven years. He sees multiple benefits to the practice in a variety of weather conditions.
When it’s hot and dry in the spring, the living cover crop protects the soil and keeps it loose. And when things are wet, the cover crop draws moisture out of the soil and the planter can get into the fields.
“My goal is to cover crop every acre in the fall and plant every acre green in the spring,” Buck said.
In response to the height and lushness of a living cover crop, several of the panel members have altered their approach to make it easier to plant into the stand.
Rohrbach said his farm has shifted away from rye to shorter crops such as wheat, triticale and crimson clover. He makes sure to plant legumes, especially where corn will be planted, for the extra boost of nitrogen.
Criswell cautioned against overdoing it on the cover crop. If the plant rate is too heavy, he said, the glut of biomass could be an impediment at planting time.
“We keep thinning it down to just have the plants protecting the soil,” Criswell said. “The big thing with this is providing an armor that protects that soil from things like hot weather or torrential downpours.”
Planting green also adds to the window when Criswell has living roots in the soil. When a cover crop is terminated prior to planting, Criswell said there’s a gap when there are no living roots in the soil prior to germination of the cash crop.
Those roots go a long way toward holding the soil together.
“You can reduce inputs, such as spray material, when you plant green and don’t terminate the cover,” Criswell said. “But the biggest goal is protecting the soil.”
But the practice does take time.
Rohrbach said farmers should not expect an immediate result when cover cropping and planting green. It’s a transition that can take three to five years.
“Be willing to make mistakes. There’s no such thing as failure when it comes to this. It’s just a learning lesson,” Rohrbach said.