A fall-planted cereal rye, wheat, or triticale cover crop can have both positive and negative impacts, for example by tying up nitrogen, reducing soil moisture prior to planting, increasing insect pressure, reducing weed pressure, reducing soil erosion and allelopathy.
Each year we receive questions on termination timing of cereal covers. This question occurs as farmers consider trade-offs between a positive return on investment from the cover crop, by allowing more biomass growth with the potential for yield loss if termination is delayed too long. Information being shared can be confusing, with one source saying to terminate pre-plant while another says to plant green into the cover.
What’s the “right” answer? We don’t know that there is one. That’s because farmers’ goals and level of risk vary. In general, there are less risks to planting green with soybean than corn. This article will share tradeoffs to help you better assess cover crop termination timing for your operation and risk level.
For several years, we’ve heard about the potential allelopathic effect cereal rye can have on corn. To avoid the potential allelopathic effects, it’s often recommended to terminate cereal rye at least two weeks before planting corn. Others report successfully planting corn into green cereal rye, leading to the question: Can allelopathic chemicals from rye affect corn?
We do know studies investigating the effects of allelopathic chemicals from cereal rye on corn germination have mostly been done in laboratory settings. One study found that allelopathic chemical extracts from rye reduced corn root length, but another study found no similar effects. It is hard to say with confidence whether allelopathic effects contribute to slower growth and reduced germination that can sometimes be observed with corn in the field or if it is the result of other environmental factors or simply nitrogen tie-up (which we feel is more likely cause). For one thing, corn has a relatively large seed, making it less likely to be affected by allelopathic chemicals than small-seeded plants. Also, allelopathic chemicals quickly degrade in the soil, so increasing time between cover crop termination and corn planting should decrease the likelihood that allelochemicals would negatively affect corn germination.
While the potential effects of allelopathy are worth noting, there are challenges with timely termination of rye prior to corn planting. Killing the rye at least 14 days before planting may not allow for much rye growth in early spring or would require delayed corn planting, either way reducing the potential benefits from cover cropping. Weather conditions are not always conducive for effective cereal rye termination. In early spring when temperatures are less than 55° F and cloudy conditions are common, herbicides such as glyphosate can have reduced absorption and translocation, resulting in delayed or partial control of cereal rye.
In contrast, glyphosate applied when weather is favorable can provide very effective termination of cereal rye while also providing early-season weed suppression. An option more growers are considering in 2022 is to use clethodim instead of glyphosate when terminating a small grain prior to corn and/or seed corn planting. Clethodim kills cereals slower than glyphosate allowing for them to stay around longer between the rows for weed and erosion control, if those are part of the farmer's goals.
Some farmers have shared the difficulty of planting through the partially decomposed “mushy” cover crop. Farmers also noticed corn planted into these conditions often came up slow and had a yellow, sickly look to it for a time. Farmers that switched to planting green say it was easier to plant compared with planting into the decomposing-dying cover and noted the corn also tended to look less yellow or sickly. Two farmers in 2020 also shared the green standing rye held the previous crop residue in place and their corn emergence was more even in those fields compared to planting into terminated cover crop residue. Many have shared the observation of early-season weed suppression.
In spite of these observations, planting green is not for everyone and one needs to assess the risk of doing so. Cover crops use moisture and can dry out the seed bed. Some farmers in non-irrigated situations have planted corn/soybeans into dry seedbeds when planting green and hoped for rains. Some farmers have found the need to run pivots to get moisture into the seedbed. Thus, there’s greater risk for farmers with non-irrigated land and those in water allocation situations.
Considerations for Planting Green
Plan for Options
With the way things are growing this year, it may be wise to have a Plan A and Plan B in mind if you plan on planting green but the cover crop is getting taller than you are comfortable with, especially for corn. For example, Plan A for a non-irrigated situation may be that you are planning on planting green unless the cover is X inches tall by a certain date (ex. April 10-15) upon which you will choose to terminate pre-plant instead (Plan B). We realize none of this is easy and we wish you the best with your decisions this year. Please contact the authors if you wish to discuss these tradeoffs in more detail for your specific situation.