The USDA's planted acreage report indicated nationwide 15.3 million intended corn acres and 33 million intended soybean acres remained unplanted through the first two weeks of June.

The final number of prevented planting acreage won’t be known until August when the Farm Service Agency releases its report. Whatever the final tally, agronomist strongly recommend not to leave the unplanted acres fallow as such a move would be detrimental to the soil’s productivity in 2020.

Cover crops is one option to not only keep the soil microbes alive and well, but also reduce erosion and nutrient loss, improved water holding capacity nutrient cycling, as well as pathogen and weed suppression.

In addition, USDA’s Risk Management Agency recently announced that farmers who planted cover crops on prevented acres will be permitted to hay, graze or chop those fields earlier than Nov. 1 this year. The final haying and grazing date is now Sept. 1, and producers still will maintain eligibility for their full 2019 prevented planting indemnity.

Information Available

There is a myriad of information available to farmers considering cover crops, whether it be for implementing in a regular cash crop rotation or using on prevented plant acres.

The Soil Health Partnership has been partnering with farmers in on-farm trials to adopt conservation agricultural practices that include cover crops to improve soil health and protect water quality while maintaining profitability.

The practice and benefits of cover crops were presented by Jim Isermann, SHP northern Illinois field manager and a farmer in Livingston and LaSalle counties, when the organization hosted a recent webinar.

“Cover crops are a critical tool for SHP. Our goal is healthy, sustainable cover crop adoption that works for farmers. We want to make sure that farmers adopt these practices properly. We know cover crops are a practice for sustainability, but they also need to be sustainable for the grower,” Isermann said.

“We need to make sure that these are economically feasible because obviously it’s not going to be a very sustainable practice if growers are struggling to cover the cost of the cover crop and not seeing those benefits. We know these benefits can vary. A benefit that one farmer may see isn’t always applicable to other farmers.

“Our SHP field team focuses on working with farmers to understand how to adapt cover crops to their specific geographies and within their farm operations.”

Nothing New

Many growers have had their own experiences with temporarily taken out of production, either through the Conservation Reserve Program or putting land into pasture.

“We know when that occurs we see a lot of great benefits. We can produce a really good crop with limited inputs and we’ve known we improve the soil health in that regard. Cover crops are means to try to replicate that within our cash cropping systems,” Isermann said.

“The economics of farming right now is very difficult to justify those long-term rotations to take ground out of production, put them into alfalfa or put the into hay. So, what we’re trying to do with a cover crop is mimic that, using the time between our cash crop when there’s nothing growing out there.”

On-Farm Experience

Cover crops have been a part of Isermann’s corn, soybean and livestock operation long before he joined the SHP staff.

The family began using cover crops in 2004 as a way to produce livestock forage with a goal of extending the grazing system utilizing corn and soybean acres. They expanded the system over time.

“We used a number of different rotations. We used a corn-soybean-wheat rotation for a number of years. We also used annuals in our grazing system on our more permanent pasture in the summer as well,” Isermann said.

“So, that kind of gave us a lot of experience using different annuals, different cover crops, everything from different legumes such as crimson clover or oats and radishes, using summer annuals, sorghum-sudan, just a whole host of different varieties of cover crops.

“Then we were also able to work as a seed salesman for a number of years working with other growers.”

Benefits Vary

The benefits of using cover crops will vary depending on a farmer’s specific field and concerns.

For those seeking more cover crop management information, Isermann recommends to do research and understand where the source of that information.

“We want to make sure that we’re looking for information from growers in similar systems and similar geographies that are facing similar challenges. The principles are sound, yes, we want to improve soil health, but we need to make sure we’re looking at the short-term agronomic implications,” he said.

“Look at the soil. What is the risk-to-reward ratio of your soil? What I mean by that is if you’re pulling high yields we need to make sure that we’re not setting ourselves up for major issues that can negatively impact that, such as wet soils in the spring. We need to make those extra steps to make sure we’re not running into those situations that perhaps somebody on a lower organic matter or highly erodible situation might not be facing.

“For those situations, if you’re low yielding as a result of low organic matter you may see those benefits a lot faster. So, think through what’s the risk-to-reward ratio of your soils. Still try cover crops. There are so my options that can be done, but make sure that you understand what’s going on.

“Make sure you’re coming from that right starting point. Make sure you have the appropriate expectations and that you’re talking to other growers that have similar experiences.”

SHP, administered by the National Corn Growers Association, has expanded to more than 220 farms enrolled across 15 states.

“The farmers are very instrumental in what’s going on with this movement. The farmers that are already engaged — many of them that are a couple of steps along — they just love the idea of seeing these green fields out there, they like the biology and they understand that these can be benefits,” Isermann said.

“Not every green plant out there that isn’t corn or soybeans are all weeds. Not every insect that’s out there is necessarily a pest. There are a lot of great benefits that we can have out there, and it’s really about changing that mindset of how growers view these different aspects.”