Soil health field day showcases cover crop air seeder in Laurel

Managing Editor

LAUREL, Del. (Aug. 9, 2016) — Last year, Chip Baker started planting cover crops in late July, a month or more sooner than many farmers in the region, hoping to see more benefits from the practice with early planting.
This year, with advice from cover crop experts, he pushed the envelope even further, seeding a four-way mix of oats, winter peas, radish and sunflower on June 15, when the corn was knee tall.
“I’m after a scavenger and I’m after a nitrogen builder for the crop the next year,” Baker said of the crop mix during the Sussex Conservation District’s Soil Health Field Day last week held at his farm.
Baker, who started using radishes in his cover crops six years ago and then incorporating mixes, is an early adopter of the district’s air seeder pilot program that uses a custom-made seeder with high-clearance booms to travel through tall crops like corn, allowing earlier seeding.
The seeder was demonstrated for about 150 farmers at the field day along with discussion about earlier cover crop planting and using multi species mixes to build soil health.
The air seeder program started last year with about 4,000 acres enrolled in Sussex County and this year David Baird, SCD coordinator, said the district is on pace to meet its goal of doubling that amount to 8,000 acres.
The pilot program incentivizes planting cover crops in corn by Sept. 1 and in soybeans by Oct. 1 using multispecies mixes with the air seeder and no additional fertilizer. The district offers four different mixes but custom blends are permitted with requirements.
For Baker, the mid-June seeding may have pushed the envelope too far this year. He said the emergence isn’t looking that good and it’s possible the corn plants shaded the cover crops too much for them to survive. It’s also possible, though, that the plants went into dormancy and will come back after harvest. The herbicide he used in the spring could also be a factor more than the seeding date.
“I’ll wait until I see what it looks like in the fall to make a final judgement,” Baker said. “I don’t want to shut the door on it just yet.”
Baker said regardless of the outcome in this specific case, being able to experiment with mixes and early seeding, aided by the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, is key to improving practices long term.
“I’ve had a lot of failures, but I’ve had some successes,” Baker told the farmers. “If it wasn’t for the EQIP program, I wouldn’t be out here playing with all this. It’s a great program to get you started.”
Dr. Mark VanGessel, University of Delaware Extension weed specialist, said getting quality cover crop seed to start with is becoming more crucial to control movement of trouble some weeds.
“Think about how much thought goes into the variety of corn you plant,” VanGessel said. “You’ve got to start thinking about your cover crop that way.”
Growers also should think more about the herbicides they’re using to kill mixes in the spring as some will be effective on some species in the mix but not all. He gave as an example glyphosate not as strong on mustards and legumes and 2,4-D being a better option but probably not with a vegetable crop following the cover.
“The think with cover crop mixes is we’ve got to be more careful about the products we’re using,” VanGessel said. “You can be setting yourself up for multiple resprays.”
VanGessel said from his experience, it’s better for growers to plant into their cover crops either while it’s still living and use a pre-emergence herbicide to kill it or wait to plant until the cover crops are completely killed off.
“That in between stage can be difficult to plant into,” he said.
Georgetown farmer, Jay Baxter, who also used the air seeder to plant cover crops in late June, said he agreed with VanGessel.
“Do not spray cover crops a week or two before planting. You’ve turned your cover crop into rope and it will wrap up into everything and you’ll say a lot of bad words,” Baxter said.
Baxter said this year he’s seen similar results as Baker with the early planted crops but still has hope it will improve and isn’t opposed to doing it again.
He added that he still has the clover seeder his grandfather used behind a mule, decades ago to plant clover into standing corn.
“This isn’t new technology,” he said. “The way we do it is more efficient. We’ve come back full circle on a lot of this stuff.”