In general, planning is a good thing. It’s important to have a plan going into using a cover crop — asking the questions that you need answered. What is your goal? How are you going to get it seeded? What crop are you going to next year on that field?
But in all this planning on the front end, it’s also important to have a plan for what you are going to do on the back end of the cover crop. This ends up being your escape plan. How are you going to terminate the cover crop if it produces too much biomass? What timing will you use to terminate? What does your escape plan mean for the following crop year?
How will you terminate? Here are a couple examples. First, if you seeded cereal rye this summer or fall, whether it be on prevented planting acres or following a short season crop like wheat or peas, and you think the biomass or water usage is too much for the conditions, you may want to spray it out with herbicide this fall or early next spring. Using tillage to terminate cereal rye can be a real challenge because of all the roots that are turned over and clods that then lay on the surface. It usually requires multiple tillage passes, and you still won’t be happy with the seedbed. The escape plan for cereal rye is usually herbicide and seed directly into the standing residue attached to the soil with roots. Another scenario: you seeded a diverse mix of cover crops, it was slow to establish and the field got weedy. Do you terminate with herbicide, or graze it, or use tillage? The decision will vary, but this is a decision that you should think about prior to seeding the cover crop.
When will you terminate? This is a great question for both managing cereal rye or a volunteer small grain after harvest. We talk a lot about rye, so let’s focus on volunteer grain cover crops. Terminating the volunteer grain with a herbicide pass or tillage (if that’s your management style) right after flowering is a good way to go. This will help you avoid straw-like residue if you terminate at this stage and could help reduce hair pinning the following spring during planting/seeding. You may also be able to swap using the chisel plow for a vertical tillage pass with this timing. Or if the biomass is making you nervous before that stage, terminate it with herbicide. Focus on being comfortable with your decision for the amount of biomass produced by the cover crop.
What does your escape plan mean for next year’s crop? Forward thinking is critical when using cover crops, especially when it comes to trying a new system. For example, if planting corn the following year, it’s important to think about how much residue you can handle with anticipated conditions, equipment and comfort level. With cover crops, I always think about how my management decisions this year will impact next year.
Having an escape plan … it doesn’t mean that you are ducking out or not committed to soil health, it means you are well prepared!