AmericanFarm.com

Ag agent recommends using summer cover crops

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Corrrespondent

ATLANTIC CITY (March 15, 2016) — Incorporating summer cover crops for crop and soil improvement was the subject of a talk by Gloucester County Agricultural Extension Agent Michelle Infante-Casella on Feb. 10 at the New Jersey Agriculture Convention.
Casella said the basic point of summer cover crops, planted between planting seasons, “is to try and save some of that nitrogen in the soil so we can recycle it.”
Casella talked about four types of summer cover crops — buckwheat, Sudan grass, cowpea and pearl millet — all of which help with summer weed suppression to varying degrees.
She cautioned farmers to be careful with buckwheat, as it tends to attract bees and keep them there, so “if you have a flowering crop that needs pollination, bees love buckwheat and they’re going to stay away from your crop that needs pollination.
“The nice thing about buckwheat is it does attract beneficials and pollinators,” she said.
In her research and testing, it has been able to thrive in hot and dry conditions as well as cool and moist conditions.
Casella said she was really impressed with cowpea, as it germinated quickly and subjugated a lot of weeds.
“It’s become my new favorite and there are different varieties and they grew really well in poor soils so if you’re looking to add nitrogen, try cowpea,” she argued, noting, “after it decomposes, I read there are also some herbicide-like compounds in there that help stop weed seed germination.”
How can you tell if your summer cover crop, whatever it is, is storing adequate nitrogen?
Examine the stems, she said.
“If you cut them open and see the red pigment, the redder or more purple the color, it means you’re getting nitrogen fixation in there.” With cowpea, she said, “we plant them, let them grow out, and boom, that nitrogen fixation happens almost immediately. I was highly impressed within 60 days we were getting this entire fixation.”
Casella said her studies showed pearl millet performs well in sandy soils and under acidic conditions, “so if you have a poor soil with acid, this is one to use. Also, if you mow this and let it regrow, it will create roots that grow deeper.”
Casella said wrote a fact sheet on Sudan grass with Burlington Extension agent Bill Bamka. They noticed Sudan grass roots grow very dense and deep quickly, so “if you mowed it, you’d get a constant biomass accumulation by letting it regrow.”
“With all of these cover crops, it’s a good idea to seed them when yields are past frost dates, you don’t want to do it when soils are too cool,” she stressed.
“One thing I recommend, if you’re going to try any new practice, try it in a small area first and see how you like it,” she said, adding there is a grants program available for trying new practices on your farm, all you need do is fill out the two-page application, obtain a technical advisor and then write a short story synopsis and take photos of your trials and results.
“Trying something like a summer cover crop in between crops, there is funding for this available through the Northeast Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education program,” she noted.
“Every soil type is different, every farm is different and your soil histories are different, but luckily we have some funding available to help you try new practices, and I’m not just talking about soil improvement,” she said.
“Any new ag-related practice that is going to help you with marketing, help you with technology on your farm, grants of up to $15,000 are available,”  she said, noting it can’t be applied to things like new tractors or pumps, but all the farmer need do is photograph, document and report about his/her project.