Evaluating Winter Cover Crops for the Environment and for Profit

Final Report for FNC05-581

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $14,132.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


With the high prices for fuel and nitrogen fertilizer, farmers are looking for ways to save money on fertilizer and reduce tillage. For livestock producers, the main issue is capturing and absorbing manure nutrients after crops have been harvested and recycling those nutrients for the following crop. The majority of the manure applied in the fall to bare soils is lost by spring. Winter cover crops can temporarily immobilize nutrients, especially N, and reduce soil erosion during the winter. Most of leaching occurs during the fall and early spring months when the soil is fallow. Vegetative covers provide a 55 to 85 percent reduction in nitrogen losses. The grass cover crops can also be utilized as silage for dairy heifers and dry cows.

Sustainable practices carried out before the grant included:
Planted hay crops, grass waterways, and used appropriate manure best management practices

Our objectives are to:
1) Evaluate Annual Ryegrass (ARG), Cereal Rye (CR), and Oilseed Radish (OSR) as Winter Cover Crops (WCC) on five Ohio dairy farms. We will do this by evaluating the uptake of nitrogen from three rates of liquid manure (0, 6000, and 12,000 gallons) from liquid dairy manure (lagoon) applied to ARG, CR, or OSR compared to bare soil (BS).
2) Evaluate the effectiveness of WCC’s for absorbing manure nutrients and preventing manure flow to surface water on five Ohio dairy farms.
3) Conduct an analysis of benefits of using WCC’s in North Central region for livestock farmers. Our research is designed to compare three cover crops and compare it to bare cropland. Cereal rye (CR) is the most common WCC but has several disadvantages. These include a smaller shallower root system, insect pest problems in the following crop, and a tendency to cause planting delays in the spring. Oilseed Radish (OSR) grows rapidly in the fall and absorbs manure nutrients. However, it dies after the first heavy frost and it has a large taproot. The concern with OSR is how quickly the taproot breaks down to release nutrients and the issue of manure in tile lines after the cover crop dies.

Some farmers are reporting better soil quality and soil tilth after using ARG and are finding it easier to change to no-till systems. ARG has the ability to absorb 300-700 pounds of nitrogen; its roots grow from 4-6 feet deep with 80-90 percent of its nutrients absorbed in the winter. ARG does not go dormant in the winter, tolerates flooding conditions, and grows well on heavy clay soils. After several years of growing ARG, soil compaction is reduced. ARG has also been reported to decrease weed pressure (especially winter annuals), reduces soybean cyst nematode populations, and increase yields in drought years (100 corn bushel gains with greater root penetration). All winter cover crops help to prevent soil erosion and decrease flooding of streams by slowing down how fast water moves off the soil to surface water.

Five dairy farms planted cover crops in 2006 after corn silage. Annual ryegrass, cereal rye, and oilseed radish (only one farm) were the covers. Dairy manure was applied at 0; 5,000; and 10,000 gallons per acre. Soil tests were collected in September, December, April, May, June (2x), July (2x), and August to evaluate nitrogen and phosphorous movement. Some additional testing was taken by Ohio State University Extension. Tissue tests were collected on the cover crops in December and April and on corn in July. Due to wet weather in the fall, two plots were planted the first week of October while the other plots were planted in mid to late September. All plots were killed from April 1-15th, 2007 with herbicides (Roundup and Basis or Roundup and Atrazine). Dry weather and drought conditions hurt corn stands in late May, June, and July 2007

Grant funds were used for traveling to plots to take soil samples, manure application, and outreach activities. Due to drought like conditions in Ohio, many farmers are interested in growing cover crops in the fall of 2008 for forage crops. Over 108 dairy farmers attended two meetings and field days on cover crops with partial information presented and gathered from these plots in 2008. Another 140 farmers and agency personnel attended a cover crop workshop in February 2009.

Approximately 25 farmers planted cover crops on 1100 acres in 2008. Cover crop seed is being purchased and plans are to continue with the plots next year using the same design as outlined in the grant proposal. A USDA Great Lakes Commission Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Grant for $28,912 was obtained to conduct similar plots in 2009 and 2010.

1) James Hoorman, Ohio State University Extension, Cover Crops and Water Quality (50 percent), Mercer County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator.
2) Glen Arnold, Putnam County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator
3) Albert Maag, Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District
4) Alan Sundermeier, Wood County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator and Ohio SARE Coordinator
5) Mike Hogan, Carroll County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator and Ohio SARE Coordinator
6) Jim Lopshire, Paulding County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator
7) Bruce Clevenger, Defiance County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator
8) Flo Chirra, Williams County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator.
9) Mike Gastier, Hurron County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator
10) Chris Bruynis, Wyandot County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator
11) Gary Wilson, Hancock County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator
12) Mark Fritz, Crawford, Seneca, and Huron County Manure Technician
13) Dr. Rafiq Islam, Soil Scientist, Ohio State University
14) Randall Reeder, Extension Specialist for Conservation Tillage

All Extension educators assisted with workshops, field days, cover crop demonstrations, and other educational activities. Articles were written for Ohio Country Journal (5), National No-till newsletter (2), Journal of Crops and Soils (1) and Ohio’s C.O.R.N newsletter (3) and Ag Waste Management Newsletters (2), eight news articles in local papers. Over 350, 400, and 420 Certified Crop Consultants were trained annually at the Conservation tillage & Technology Conference in 2007-2009.

Farmers who assisted with Demonstration plots
1) Jim Meyerhoffer, Putnam Dairy Farmer
2) Dan Ellerbrock, Putnam County Dairy Farmer
3) Lou Brown, Auglaize County Dairy Farmer
4) Van Erk Dairy Farm, Paulding County Dairy Farmer
5) Keith Wiesehan, Paulding County Dairy/Beef Heifer Feeder
6) Steve Ellerbrock, Putnam County Dairy Farmer

Growing cover crops in Ohio is highly dependant upon the weather, timely management, and selecting good varieties. In 2006, crops planted in September survived the winter weather much better than cover crops planted in October. Good seed to soil contact was critical to good establishment. Adequate rainfall (at least 1 inch) at seeding time increased cover crop growth. Drilling the seed produced much better results than broadcast seed. Liquid manure applied immediately at seeding allowed the cover crops to grow more vigorously than manure applied later in the season. Due to a wet fall, some manure was not applied until late November. Cover crops that had manure applied in late-November grew 6-12 inches in several weeks after manure application, showing that manure nutrients (N&P) were soluble and available to the plant. Warm weather with heavy rains late December and early January followed by extremely cold conditions hurt cover crop stands. OSU Extension had several cover crop variety trials that will help producers select cover crop seed that will survive Ohio’s winter weather. Farmers needed to apply herbicides early in the spring to keep the soil from drying out. Where cover crops were killed later, excessive soil moisture was lost and hurt corn stands in May, June and July with droughty conditions. Corn yields will be harvested in October-November. One farmer harvested the cover crop for forage and got 1.5 tons of Annual ryegrass and 4 tons of cereal rye haylage in May and then planted the field to soybeans. Several farmers are interested in trying this system due to a lack of forage and low hay supplies in Ohio. A late frost in April killed many Alfalfa and wheat fields and the drought reduced hay production to less than 50 percent of normal. For best haylage production, manure applied at seeding was more successful.

In 2008, five farmers planted cover crops with demonstrations. Two farmers did not get their cover crops planted until Mid October and these fields did poorly because they did not start growing until Late October and did not have adequate growth before a hard frost in Mid November. One farmer planted 65 acres of cereal rye following corn silage (September 15) and harvested about 300 wet tons of forage the following spring. He planted another 120 acres this past year and harvested 400 wet tons which he fed to his dairy heifers and dry cows. His corn yields were 20-25 tons per acre which are about average. He applied several layers of manure to the growing cereal rye in the fall and winter which stimulated crop growth. Two other farmers tried this but were less successful. They planted the cereal rye in October and did not apply any manure. These fields had poor stands due to some heavy rains and the following year, the corn crop was somewhat yellow and stunted due to nitrogen deficiency. Two producers had negative results with the annual ryegrass (ARG). The ARG was hard to kill in the spring with Roundup and formed seed heads which was expensive to kill with additional herbicides. One dairy farmer compounded the problem by not spraying the field at the right time and allowed the seed to spread across his farm. The most popular cover crop has been the oilseed radish which helps to reduce soil compaction and which winter kills. The only problem has been the smell of decaying plants when it dies.

Timing and management is critical to raising cover crops. Cover crops need to be planted as soon as corn silage is harvested and manure applied before seeding if possible. For dairy farmers, this may be a problem if the manure can not be applied in a timely manner. Surface applications of manure can be made on cereal rye and annual ryegrass but for oil seed radish it is not recommended since it stunts or kills the plant.

Cereal rye grass absorbed 3.5 percent of manure nutrients compared to 4.5 percent for annual rye and 5.2 percent for oil seed radish. Cover crops helped to absorb the nitrogen in the manure but the unanswered question is how much was saved and utilized by the following crop. While the oilseed radish had a large amount of nitrogen uptake, much of this N may be lost if the oilseed radish roots decompose too soon. Cereal rye may compete with the corn for nitrogen in the spring. Annual ryegrass absorbed a large amount of N but was the hardest to kill and hard to harvest in the spring because it did not dry down. Annual ryegrass almost has to be harvested as haylage.

The advantage of oilseed radish was that it loosened the soil and helped to reduce soil compaction. It also dies after the temperatures reaches 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Two disadvantages are that the smell is very pungent when oilseed radish decomposes and the nitrogen can be lost if warm weather occurs in the winter or if heavy spring rains occur.

Cereal rye is a good forage source and absorbs manure nutrients. It is a hardy cover crop and can be planted later than the other two crops and still give good yields. It is possible to harvest 3 to 4 wet tons of haylage in the spring before planting corn. The cereal rye made excellent dry cow and heifer forage for feed. A couple of issues with cereal rye is possible insect pests from armyworm or cutworms in the spring, excessive growth if the spring stays wet, and nitrogen tie up if corn is planted after the cereal rye. If manure can be applied either before seeding, or in the fall after the cereal rye is 4 inches tall or after cereal rye is harvested in the spring, there can be enough nitrogen in the manure to reduce this problem. OSU Extension recommends that at least 40 lbs N be applied with a starter to help the corn cope with less nitrogen being consumed by the cereal rye and decomposing cereal rye roots and residue.

Annual ryegrass caused the most problems. It needs to be planted in early September to survive the winter. There are numerous Annual ryegrass varieties and some seem to survive better than others. Winterkill was a major issue with annual ryegrass. Second, the surviving plants are difficult to control. Several herbicide applications were needed to kill the half dead annual ryegrass. Seed heads emerged and became a major weed on two farms. This was a major problem, so much so that these farmers do not recommend annual ryegrass as a cover crop. The forage value was fairly good if harvested at the proper time but yields were fairly low due to poor stands. Recent annual ryegrass research and newer varieties may improve this situation but the high management of annual ryegrass for dairy farmers is an issue. Trying to control seed heads is also a major challenge.

Cover crop adoption in Western Ohio is starting to dramatically increase. Since this project began, about 20,000 additional acres of cover crops are being planted. Oilseed radish is a popular choice among no-till farmers for its ability to reduce soil compaction and absorb nitrogen. It is easy to plant and does not need any additional herbicide to kill it in the spring. The seed cost is fairly high ($3 per pound) and the smell can be a problem but currently it is the most popular cover crop among farmers for planting no-till corn. It also has a natural herbicide that reduces weed pressure and appears to have a detrimental effect on soybean cyst nematodes. However, for dairy producers, oilseed radish appears to have minimal benefits unless the nitrogen in dairy manure can be carried over to the following crop.

Cereal rye grass has much potential for diary farmers. It is hardy and can be planted later in the fall and still be harvested as a forage in the spring. Cereal rye responds to manure applications and to nitrogen. Plots without manure or no history of manure did not produce as well as well fertilized fields. If it is planted early in the fall after corn silage, some farmers have reported getting two cuttings, one in the spring and one in the fall. One farmer in our study was ready to try to harvest the cereal rye, but due to wet conditions and then snow, was not able to harvest a fall application. However, in the spring, 3 to 4 wet tons were harvest from 65 acres. The economic value of this was an additional $125 to $150 per acre (after costs) to the farmer. The cereal rye was harvested as haylage and fed to dry cows and dairy heifers. The value per head was about $90. The biggest difficulty was getting the cereal rye harvested in a timely manner in the spring if the weather turns wet. Crude protein values were about 12.5 percent and available protein 11.5 percent, ADF 33.9 percent and Total digestible nutrients 60.0 percent. Annual ryegrass yields were too variable due to winter kill to harvest.

Cereal rye is also being used by grain farmers to improve soybean yields. Cereal rye planted after corn is allowed to grow in the spring. If it is not harvested, farmers are no-till drilling soybeans into the residue and building organic matter. The cereal rye is detrimental to soybean cysts nematode and is decreasing soil compaction and weed pressure. The cereal rye can also help to dry out wet soils in the spring and protect early planted soybeans from frost damage by trapping warm air in the residue.

Three field days/meetings were held in 2007 with a total attendance of 108 dairy farmers and participants. A meeting in the St. Mary’s Watershed attracted over 70 farmers with 25 farmers agreeing to plant about 1100 new acres of cover crops. One poultry producer/grain farmer planted 800 acres in 2007 and has planted another 800 acres of cover crops in 2008. Over 5,000 acres of cover crops were planted in this area in 2009. A meeting in Bowling Green, Ohio attracted 26 dairy and grain farmers with 1000 acres planned to be planted to cover crops (especially Oil seed radish). One dairy planted 800 acres of cover crops last year for forages and used the cover crops to absorb dairy manure. At least 1500 acres of cover crops were planted after this meeting. The Bryan, Ohio meeting attracted 12 dairy and grain, and beef producers. At least 2500 acres of cover crops ARG and oilseed radish) were planted in this area in 2007. Approximately 4,000 acres of cover crops was planted in 2008-2009 fall and winter season from producers who attended these meetings. Another 140 farmers and agency personnel attended a cover crop workshop in February 2009.

Information from these plots was shared at the following meetings in the fall of 2007 and 2008 by OSU Extension Personnel (estimated attendance is listed in parentheses.): Pennsylvania No-till Conference (125); Pennsylvania Cover Crop conference (150); Conservation Tillage and Technology meeting (700); Ada, Ohio; National No-till Conference, (700), Cincinnati, Ohio; Indiana No-till Conference (200); National Soil Science meetings, (150) New Orleans, Louisiana; and North Central Region Cover Crops Team meetings (50).

Cover crops do not follow the annual reporting cycle since they are often planted in the fall and the benefits may not occur until next spring or next summer. This causes some problems in reporting benefits on an annual basis.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.