June 27, 2022

Cover crop growing pains: Advice to those just getting started

GOLDEN, Ill. — Cover crops are not new to Reuschel Farms as the family first experimented with them in a no-till system in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s.

The father-and-son team of Jeff and Andrew Reushel has since returned to cover crops and no-till and over the past several years have tried about 30 different species to find what works best for their corn and soybean farm.

Son Andrew detailed the successes and challenges of using cover crops on the fifth-generation farm in a recent Cover Crops Strategies podcast, hosted by Noah Newman.

“We have very much high variation of different types of soil types. We farm everything from white timber dirt, old reclaimed strip mines, flat black muck, poor, poor drainage and everything in between,” Reuschel said.

He was wrapping up planting during the podcast.

“I’m planting soybeans into some fall-seeded cereal rye, but I’m also looking at annual ryegrass that was interseeded into the cornstalks that year, so that’s two species that are growing. There’s some red clover that was there from the year before. I see some barley from the year before,” he said.

“There are a lot of volunteers in here from the last three or four years of free seed for me, so that’s kind of nice. When it comes to cover crops ahead of soybeans, you really can’t go wrong with cereal rye, and it’s been that way for a decade for us.

“Sometimes we play with other species depending on when we interseed it into the corn and sometimes we only get it out there broadcast behind planting and so then it’s usually just cereal rye.

“Ahead of corn we do a lot of annual ryegrass, which is a completely different ball game. I used to do a whole lot of different variations of species, kind of like a shotgun-blast approach of everything. With the (cover crop) prices these days, I’m getting to be a little bit simpler with about three or four species each because I know they’ll work.”

Input Reduction

One of the benefits touted for using cover crops is the ability to reduce some inputs for corn and soybean productions.

“In the beginning I really didn’t have any way to measure that and so we weren’t reducing anything in the beginning. We were just watching how the soil changed. I started taking biomass samples and trying to figure out the rate of decomposition and how the nutrients are moving and how much we have and use Haney soil tests,” Reuschel said.

“We’ve been trying to monitor it and give some sort of numbers and then I just realized it’s all weather-based, about how those nutrients cycle. You use your best judgment, but I would say that we use a whole lot less fertilizer, especially dry fertilizer, than the average Illinois farmer. Whether that’s good or bad yet, we don’t know.

“It’s been almost seven or eight years of no phosphorus on some farms and I haven’t seen any difference in our soil tests. I don’t know, it’s just still stuff that we are really trying to figure out, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get figured out.”

Eye-Opener

Reuschel joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2017 and noted an eye-opening takeaway from that experience.

A University of Illinois entomologist collected data from sticky traps and pit digs and found pest and beneficial insects in a no-till field with no cover crops was split 50-50.

“Then in the cereal rye cover crop that at the time of the tests didn’t have a very good stand of cereal rye, 80% of the insects in the cereal rye were beneficial and 20% were non-beneficial. It’s something so little, so minuscule, one tiny little variable changed that data so much,” Reuschel said.

“That was one of those things that was like, oh, there’s so much more to this than what I see with my soil, what I can feel with my soil, what I can smell with my soil, right? There’s even more to this because the bugs are reacting to it. That was just one of those pieces of data that I really was happy that I saw. That was really fun and interesting.”

Growing Pains

Looking back on his own cover crop experiences, Reuschel offered some advice to those getting started.

“When I got back to the farm and I saw the benefits of cover crops I jumped in whole hog and never looked back. I probably jumped a little too far and a little too fast because I definitely had a lot of growing pains with some things, but that was all part of the learning experience, too,” he said.

“That’s probably why I learned so much so fast. It is definitely nothing that I would advise anybody else to do. I would never advise anyone to just go whole hog and jump at it and get as motivated about it as I was. Be patient, watch it, understand it and then obviously adapt it over time and continue to learn from it.”

Always trying to make improvements, Reuschel experiments with various cover crop mixes to find what best suits the land.

“I really started to fine-tune things down to what I would call like a broad-acre aspect, something that I can spread out and do about 800 acres, which for me has been what I call it Seagram’s 7 and 7,” he said.

“It’s 7 pounds of cereal rye or 7 pounds of barley and 7 pounds of annual ryegrass. Depending on the year, the timing and the price, I’ll add crimson clover and some rapeseed into it. Then I’ve been putting that into a twin-row situation and drilling it and then being able to come in and strip-till corn.

“That’s kind of been my go-to in front of corn for the last couple years, fine-tuning that in. It gives me the cover crop, not too much biomass that I have to work with in case it gets wet, but I’m still getting some good action going on. Then I do cereal rye in front of beans. Those have just kind of been my go-to standards.

“We also have acres that we play on. It is a shotgun blast of species. I could plant 30 species, no big deal, because I’m just watching and observing what works. What works on the high ground? What works on the low ground? What works? Why is it thicker on the high ground? Why is it thicker on the low ground, and their interactions together.

“When we have lot of variable ground, there’s never a one size fit all.”

Diversify

One thing Reuschel learned from his experimenting with different mixes is it’s best to have a mix of cover crops that like wet feet and those that prefer dry feet.

“I don’t know what the weather’s going to do, and when you got hills and hollers all in the same path, instead of having a perfectly uniform-looking field of a cover crop field, I would rather the species reflect my soils and start changing them instead of having that picture-perfect, beautiful field,” he said.

For those considering cover crops, Reuschel recommends finding people “that you trust and seek their advice.”

“That person doesn’t have to be local. You just have to find people to have experience that you can then turn around and tailor it back to what your purpose and what your goal is. Don’t just take blatant advice over the internet,” he said.

“Tailor everything back to your own farm and to your own goals and to your own mindset, and there’s a lot of people that can’t do that. Seek advice from people that can help you in that regard. Everyone has two cents to give you in terms of advice, but that’s all it’s worth. You’ve got to be able to take it home, tailor it and make it work for you.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor