Spring Cover Crop Managment

Richard Taylor, Extension Agronomist; rtaylor@udel.edu

Although it seems like ancient history, many years ago when no-till technology was first beginning, Delaware and Maryland farmers were rapid adopters of cover crops for no-till grain production. Farmers mostly used cereal crops as winter cover crops. At the time, we learned some important lessons that we should remember this year because of the weather pattern that has occurred in a number of areas in Delaware.

Because there are a number of perceived environmental benefits with cover crops, government programs, as well as many environmentally-conscious growers have moved production agriculture back into heavy reliance on cover crops. Wheat and cereal rye are two popular cover crops, although some growers are using legumes, legume-cereal combinations, and even some other broadleaf crops such as the forage or Daikon radish. These cover crops are designed to protect the soil, add in organic residues, or supplement the soil with legume-derived nitrogen (N).

For any cover crop, whether it’s the grass cereals used for ground-covering, water-conserving mulch or legumes for spring N-fixation as well as for residue, I have found that there is a tendency to allow these crops to grow as much as possible by delaying herbicide or tillage or other cover crop control method as late as possible. In years when adequate rainfall occurs or good early season rainfall keeps the crop supplied, cover crops are not very harmful to soil moisture reserves or actually may be very helpful in drying out the surface soil. However, the season to be extra cautious in is the year when winter rainfall is below normal and this is followed by a dry early spring. The combination of lower than expected subsoil moisture level and rapid cover crop growth with heavy water use by the cover crop can lead to excessively dry sub-soil conditions.

The latter weather pattern seems to be developing in many areas of Delaware since winter rainfall has been below normal or the ground has been frozen during precipitation events. Growers need to monitor their subsoil moisture levels closely this spring and be prepared to terminate their cover crops earlier than normal if the subsoil becomes too dry. Early termination of the cover crop will allow time for subsequent rainfall to percolate into the subsoil and for the killed mulch to protect the soil from excessive water loss through evapotranspiration.

Growers or their consultants can check the subsoil moisture level with either the standard soil testing probe or with one that has an extended handle to make deep probing physically easier. It still is much of a “feel method” that depends on the experience of the person testing the soil. As a general rule, if subsoil is formed into a ball by squeezing it together in one’s hand and then the hand is opened and the ball easily falls apart with the least touch and no hint of moisture is present on the hand after making the ball, then the soil is on the dry to very dry side. The cover crop should be killed before the subsoil drops to the very dry state.

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