At Mason’s Heritage Farm in Queen Anne’s County, Md., cover crops are just as important as corn and soybeans, and then some.

Having the ability to do organic no-till requires the right mix of cover crops and the tools to do the job, says Stephen Kraszewski, who runs the farm with his father-in-law, Bill Mason, the farm’s owner. They grow between 200 and 250 acres of organic no-till soybeans a year.

“My father-in-law paid lots of attention to land-grant university research on organic row crops, and he was especially interested in work being done at Rodale Institute,” Kraszewski says.

Overall, the farm is 900 acres and follows a corn-soybean rotation. Acres are split evenly depending on weather and ground conditions. Cover crops are planted after corn and soybeans. After soybeans, they aerial-seed clover and small grain, let it establish, and then plow it down before planting corn the following spring.

Rye is the predominant cover crop after corn and was the main cover crop after corn going into organic no-till soybeans.

“Rodale at the time suggested drilling rye after corn, letting it overwinter and then planting soybeans the next spring. It worked out the first couple of years,” Kraszewski says. “Of course, you have to manage 5-6 feet of rye!”

They purchased a 15-foot roller crimper with chevron-style crimpers to roll down the rye in spring. The crimper was mounted on the front of a tractor with a drill on the back — a one-and-done system with no second pass.

But it was far from perfect. The John Deere 1590 no-till drill had tight 7.5-inch spacing.

“Basically, it was a consistent fall of soybeans into a little slot, but it wasn’t great at getting the soybean in the ground,” Kraszewski says. “Especially if you have a good rye cover crop, the seed placement could be less than desired. It just didn’t have that seed-to-soil contact and placement that you wanted. Not only that, even if things did go right at planting, and the weather wasn't bad, you were at a loss for weed control.”

Better Tools, Better Establishment

Kraszewski and Mason wanted a better way to deal with weeds, and to get crops planted.

They purchased an eight-row, 20-foot John Deere 1760 planter, and a 20-foot folding-wing roller crimper to match the planter’s width. This required a second pass, but, “That was the first crucial step. We just needed to make sure our cover crop was more robust and doing a better job by starting out with a proper planter, with the proper tools,” Kraszewski says.

The mat from the rye-crimson clover cover crop is so thick, according to Stephen Kraszewski, that some years he doesn’t even have to go through and cultivate weeds. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kraszewski.

They also experimented with multispecies cover crops. Instead of just rye in fall, they interseeded crimson clover. This, again, required changes.

"The rye can be drilled, but the clover has to basically be broadcast across the field,” Kraszewski says. “You can't put it in the same hopper and drill it like the rye … because it will never come up. It's a very small seed.”

They hire an aerial seeder to spread 10-15 pounds of crimson clover, then drill the rye over top.

"And that just presses that … small crimson seed just enough to establish it, and then … it doesn't stop the rye. The rye just goes in, doesn't even know it’s there, and then you have 2 crops coming up together," Kraszewski says.

The two crops complement each other. The clover suppresses the rye, so it doesn’t get too tall in spring. And the planter, equipped with row cleaners and set on 30-inch centers, can go through anything with its double-disk openers and closing wheels.

"You can do a good job of seed placement, which is really what you need to have a successful no-till crop,” Kraszewski says. “You have got to have seed where you want it, and the planter really does that.”

The mat from the two covers is so thick, Kraszewski says, that some years he doesn’t have to cultivate weeds. But cultivation is sometimes necessary.

S-tine cultivators with teeth were the initial solution, but they also caused a lot of soil disturbance, Kraszewski says. So, he and Mason bought a new cultivator that uses sweeps that glide under the soil a few inches, lifts it up and then sets it back down.

"You save a lot of tillage, and there's a lot less disturbance," Kraszewski says. “And it's better for the soil and soil health, and you preserve quite a bit of your cover crop that's still there that's hanging around, especially that rye that wants to linger. Once it matures, it's pretty tough. It's a nice way to cover your rows and suppress your weeds."

Playing Yield Catch-Up

Overall, yields have declined since transitioning to organic. Kraszewski says the farm averages two-thirds of the yields they once got farming conventionally. But they get paid twice the price for their grains.

“So, in the end, I think it pays off very well,” he says, adding that the grains get hauled to elevators in Pennsylvania and on the Eastern Shore.

The no-till organic soybeans yield even less, but Kraszewski insists they are getting close to the farm’s average. He says he is working with a grower from Virginia this spring on better timing of soybean planting and more roll-down options.

Along with a new planter, Stephen Kraszewski and his father-in-law, Bill Mason, bought a 20-foot folding-wing roller crimper to roll the multispecies cover crop before planting. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kraszewski. 

Having different cropping systems helps break up the farm’s workflow, and cover crops are a big piece of the puzzle.

“It's always kind of been my father-in-law’s goal to break up the crop plantings into manageable pieces,” Kraszewski says. “Instead of doing everything all the same, say all plowed corn and all just maybe no-till corn or disk corn, the problem is you have big chunks of ground to get over all at the same time.

“But if you break up with different techniques, you have different timings, and your cover crops have something to do with that because certain species have certain maturities. And if you manage that and you stagger plantings, stagger your cover crops, you can manage your cropland now and your planting windows a little bit better.”

Know How Covers Fit

Sarah Hirsh, Extension educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Somerset County, says growers should remember that cover crops are an investment.

“You're paying for the seed; you're paying to put them out in the field whether that be aerial-seeded or tilled in. All of that costs money," she says. “So, it's all about getting the most bang for your buck.”

Hirsh works with growers on thinking more intentionally about cover crops and how they fit in the overall cropping system. This involves a few things:

  • Thinking about the cover cropping window
  • Figuring out the purpose of cover cropping
  • Being realistic about what the cover crops will provide
  • Putting things down on paper

"I like to look at the forage radish as an example because if the forage radish is planted early September, it's going to look very different from a forage radish planted in late October," she says. “And so, you want to be realistic. Yes, a forage radish can alleviate compaction and can provide N, but is it realistic for a cover crop planted late?”

You also should think about what the cash crop needs. Hirsh brought up the example of a corn-corn-soybean rotation with barley planted after corn and rye planted after beans. Now, say you want a legume ahead of the corn, perhaps with a multispecies radish-triticale-crimson clover mix. This is where you should think about potential sticking points, and putting things down on paper can help.

“The radish will most likely not be worthwhile to plant in November as it won’t meet the desired goal of the radish,” Hirsh says. “Ideally, you would plant the mix in September, but the beans are still in the ground. Now we have to figure out how to get the cover crop planted in the soybean.”

Chris Lawrence, USDA-NRCS agronomist from Virginia, has created multiple templates for crop rotations that include cover crops. Here’s an example of one.

But he insists growers keep things simple.

“There’s something about creating a drawing that seems to help the process, even if it’s done on the back of an old envelope,” Lawrence says. “Sketch out your rotation and study it. You’re looking to find or open up gaps in the rotation that give more growing degree days to covers, so you can reap more rewards from them.”

Also, start small and learn from others.

“Being more intentional with cover crops can start with a single test strip on a back field,” Lawrence says. “You don’t have to commit the entire operation. Try, learn, adjust and try again. But also find someone who’s tried your idea before; learning from someone else’s mistakes can be a great shortcut to success.”

For Kraszewski, it comes down to treating his cover crops as cash crops.

“When you have that intention … it becomes much more focused on what you're doing, how you're establishing that fall cover crop, and how everything comes together the next year. So, that's kind of the way we've looked at it and where our philosophy stands," he says.

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