To Plant Cover Crops

On November 05, 2018

To Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are an essential part of sustainable crop production systems, and particularly so in no-tillage systems. To get them established on time after corn or soybean harvest in the fall is not an easy task, and this year has been especially challenging due to delayed harvest with the wet soil conditions. Nonetheless, farmers should be encouraged to still plant cover crops for many reasons.

Extension Agronomist Sjoerd Duiker explains cover crops serve many purposes. Improvement of soil health due to addition of organic matter and the effect of the living root system on soil biology, soil physical properties, and soil fertility. We are learning that the cover crop rhizosphere is like a super highway for soil organisms such as bacteria, symbiotic fungi, and protozoa that scavenge and process nutrients, contribute to building soil structure, and compete with pest and disease causing organisms.

Additionally cover crops recycle soil nutrients. There is more evidence coming out of the importance of cover crop to take up nitrates from the subsoil, release it upon decomposition of the cover crop, and make it available to the next crop by careful management of species, planting date and C:N ratio of the cover crop at termination. Although we don’t talk too much about it yet, cover crops also recycle many other nutrients, and some cover crops make sulfur available to following crops.

The weed control provided by cover crops is likely to be more widely recognized as some weeds develop resistance against many herbicides. There is no silver bullet for weed control, but cover crops such as rye have been found to be very effective in suppressing winter annuals such as glyphosate-resistant marestail. Although cover crops probably won’t provide complete control they can cause the weed infestation to be dramatically reduced and cause the remaining specimens to be smaller so they are more susceptible to be killed by herbicide.

Cover crops also increase the opportunity to graze cropland. The valuable role of grazing animals for soil health is becoming clearer. It is interesting how the negative effect of grazing has been emphasized for such a long time but the positives were ignored. That is now changing. Grazing livestock can process high-carbon, fibrous plant material and make it more digestible for soil organisms. It is always amazing to how earthworms will congregate below the manure pies. But earthworms are only the top of the iceberg – there are many other soil organisms that are concentrated under the manure pies. There is also evidence that the nitrogen value of urine from grazing animals is much greater than that of manure spread from the pit because it is deposited in a concentrated area and infiltrates rapidly, protecting nitrogen from volatilizing.

These are just a few benefits of cover crops. The season has almost gone by, but there is still time to establish cover crops such as rye and wheat. They may not look like much in the fall, but come spring they can still put on significant growth. You may want to increase the seeding rate 25% because tillering is likely to be reduced in these late-seeded crops. 

To Attend A Bedded Pack Barn Tour

Bedded pack barns are an alternative management system to the more common freestall and tie-stall dairy barns. Regular addition of bedding and stirring of the bedded pack is required to maintain a dry and comfortable environment for dairy cattle in these barns. Benefits of a well-managed bedded pack can include improved cow comfort and cleanliness, decreased somatic cell count, increased production and reduced odor.

To learn about this you are invited to attend a barn workshop on November 5 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Vista Grande Farm (290 Ruth Rd, Fleetwood, PA 19522). This is a free event. Light refreshments provided. Questions contact Mat Haan at or 610-378-1327.

The workshop will include a barn tour, equipment demonstration and discussion with Dr. Jeff Bewley (Alltech), Dan McFarland (Penn State Extension), Mat Haan (Penn State Extension) and Jesse Bitler (Vista Grande Farm) on managing bedded pack dairy barns.

To register, visit

To Consider A Final Hay Harvest

A shortage of forage to sustain a production’s winter needs can cause producers to have to make tough decisions when it comes to late fall forage management.  A wet spring and summer caused forage growers across Pennsylvania to be forced to stay out of their fields as to not cause damage to the soil and forage stand.  However, now we are faced with the need to decide about late season hay harvest – should we mow or let the forage stand in the field?

Extension Agronomist Jessica Williamson explains fall hay management can be a “make-or-break” time for stand longevity and subsequent forage yields Managing grass stands is not as challenging as legume stands.  The main consideration in determining whether to mow a grass field is how much forage is standing and at what point in the fall you are considering mowing.  If there is considerable regrowth that accrued during the summer and early fall and you were unable to maintain a regular harvest schedule, assess your forage stand to determine if you should mow in the late fall.

Regardless of whether the hay field is grass or legumes, residual height should be a primary concern for the last cutting of forage.  Grasses should not be cut lower than 4 inches in the fall, and a residual height of 5 inches or greater would be preferred.

Quote Of The Week: “The harvest of old age is the recollection and abundance of blessing previously secured.” Marcus Tullius Cicero