GENE LOGSDON: Cover Crop Frenzy


The Contrary Farmer

I get chided sometimes for harking back to the past too much but I can’t avoid it. Much of what constitutes farming today is harking back to the past. No better example is the increasing interest in cover crops, a practice as old as the hills. Instead of leaving crop fields bare over winter, they are planted in late summer or early fall to vegetation that keeps the soil covered until planting time the next spring. All kinds of advantages accrue. Protection against erosion of course, but also the cover crops take up soil nutrients that might otherwise leach away over winter and then release them back into the soil for crop plants to absorb the next year. Needless to say, what makes the practice especially attractive is that it is not only environmentally beneficial but almost immediately profitable since the government pays about half the cost. One of my favorite farmers likes to say when he thinks no one is listening except me, that he can’t understand why so many of his brethren are anti-government conservatives. “Taking advantage of government programs has been the key to our success,” he says.

Cover cropping is certainly a good thing as long as farming depends so completely on annual cultivation. (It is too much to hope that humans will ever be wise enough to keep most of the soil in forage and tree crops but at least there ought to be cover crop subsidies for hay and pasture too.) I will pretend to ignore that thought right now in favor of telling you about an almost hair-raising adventure that cover cropping provided me recently, if I had any hair to raise. I got a call from a neighboring farmer. He invited me to come see something he said was really interesting. “You have to see this to believe it,” he said. “A new machine that broadcasts cover crop seed into mature standing corn.”

So I drove over to where he said the machine was in operation, along a country road where the cornfields stretched endlessly to all the far horizons. Corn in our neighborhood this year is wonderful. It is taller than I have ever seen corn since the days of open-pollinated stuff and thickly planted in the modern way. Rows are 20 inches apart and stalks hardly six inches apart.  It is difficult to walk in these fields.

Okay. Now imagine you are sitting in your car on a lonely country road with jungles of this kind of corn all around you and nothing else in sight. I wondered if maybe I had gone to the wrong section of land (we don’t reckon land in acres anymore but in sections). Then down the road a bit, too far away to hear motor noise, something big started oozing out onto the road from the wall of corn. And it kept right on oozing. I doubt if the effect could have been any more breathtaking had a 747 airliner rolled noiselessly out of the foliage. I was told later that the length of the boom from which flexible tubes hang down to spread the cover crop seed on the ground between the corn rows is 180 feet long. That is something more than the width of a football field. The cockpit where the driver sits loomed above the corn as did the motor works and bin containing the seed. The exceedingly narrow, tall wheels reminded me of giraffes. But the wonder was that this monster moved through that thick stand of tall corn without knocking down one single stalk except right at the edge of the field where the rows run perpendicular to the others.

I asked the farmer how much that thing cost. He wasn’t sure since he was only paying for the services of a custom operator.  He thought “about half a million.” But he liked it more than flying on seed with an airplane. What was he planting?  Annual ryegrass, dwarf Essex rape and Daikon radishes. Many other plants are being used. Cover cropping comes down to killing off one batch of weeds and then planting another in its place.

The tiny seeds that fell from the planting tubes bounced and rolled around on the hard August soil, but at least did not catch in the corn foliage. Some of them lodged in the little cracks and crevices in the soil surface. Those will sprout for sure when it rains, the farmer assured me. Maybe the others too. I was not bold enough to ask him what this operation was costing him but a small, part time farmer in the neighborhood tells me he can’t afford to do cover cropping, even with the government subsidy. I think that is because the burn down of the cover crop in spring is sophisticated and costly. Generally, it calls for two quarts of glyphosate per acre, along with 8 ounces per acre of 2,4-D to kill winter annuals, all in 10 to 15 gallons of water depending on air temperature. You may need to add AMS (whatever that is— I am reading this from the application directions) or citric acid to adjust pH of the water. You might want to add a non-ionic surfactant to the mix. You may want to use gramoxone rather than glyphosate because it provides quicker burn down but is not translocated, whatever that means. There are other options involving the weedkillers, Atrazine and Simazine, and crop oil. Are you still with me? Remember to use flat nozzles, not flood jet nozzles, at 20 to 30 psi. Do not use an air induction sprayer because excessive boom bounce can cause improper overlap that results in streaks.

Farming sure ain’t what it used to be.