No-Tilling Hairy Vetch into Crop Stubble and CRP Acres

Final Report for FNC93-028

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1993: $3,760.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1994
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $11,200.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


To be able to no-till rye and hairy vetch into wheat, soybean, and corn stubble and to no-till hairy vetch into Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grass stands to improve them for grazing or crop production when they come out of the CRP starting in 1996, reducing the need for purchased nitrogen (N).

A. Hairy vetch no-tilled into a heavy stand of fescue enrolled in CRP to offer producers the choice of improved tilth and nitrogen or a quality forage without tillage.
B. Hairy vetch no-tilled and disked into wheat stubble ahead of corn.
C. Hairy vetch and oats broadcast and disked into wheat stubble ahead of milo.

The farm has 280 acres of CRP ground seeded to grass, 350 acres of timber and 880 acres of cropland. Bottom ground is operated on a corn-soybean rotation while the uplands are on a corn, soybean and wheat rotation as the farm program bases permit. Wheat is not double cropped but is used as a place to establish hairy vetch in late August. Milo is substituted for corn on several fields that have lighter colored droughty soils. We have used conservation tillage and some no till.

Our first experience with hairy vetch was a seeding in the fall of 1992 in wheat stubble. We tried hairy vetch because we had been unsuccessful in establishing stands of red clover in wheat. We incorporated the vetch by disking and produced 126 bushels of milo with 38 pounds of additional nitrogen.

Long time growers of hairy vetch such as Ken Heinzmann of Sandoval, Tom Hortin of Albion, Marvin Manges of Yale, and Terry Holsapple of Toledo were consulted for advice. Bruce Curry, District Conservationist for the Soil Conservation Service, Mike Plumer of the Cooperative Extension Service, and Dr. Steve Ebelhar of the University of Illinois were called on for suggestions. A tour was held in cooperation with the Soil and Water Conservation District, but because of weather problems a field closer to town was used to show off hairy vetch.

No one had experience with no-tilling hairy vetch into a heavy stand of fescue. I could only make an educated guess that it would work. And virtually no one incorporated hairy vetch or followed it with milo.

A. The CRP program encompasses 36.5 million acres, and a survey conducted by the Soil and Water Conservation Society indicated that 27 million acres will come back into production if an extension of some type is not offered. The survey showed that producers would put 9 million acres back into crops even if an extension was available. My home county has 34,000 acres enrolled in CRP and 90% of that is expected back into production. These fields are nearly all classified as highly erodible and tillage should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Most CRP seedings here initially were a mixture of legumes and grasses. Gradually the grasses edged out the legumes and the final stand became grass. In Southern Illinois where most of the CRP acres are, fescue was the final species. Fescue is considered hard to no-till into. Producers wanting to return the land to crop production had the choice of plowing the grass under and going to wheat the fall the CRP contract expired. An alternative was to no-till soybeans into the grass. Corn was considered a poor option because of possible allelopathic effects from fescue to corn.

I felt that hairy vetch could compete with fescue if it was no-tilled. Perhaps mowing the fescue low could help the vetch compete. The hairy vetch could supply 80 to 100 pounds of nitrogen for a corn crop and provide a looser seedbed than a straight fescue sod. I also felt that the hairy vetch-fescue could be harvested as a quality forage if a producer had livestock or a market of hay. Perhaps some fields could be kept out of production a few years longer if a quality forage could be grown. The big barrier was that I could find no one that had tried this, and a general feeling that nothing could compete with fescue without using a burndown.

The fescue was mowed at an 8-inch height in early August to control weeds. In late August, part of it was mowed as short as the mower would go without scalping the ground. Hairy vetch at 22 pounds per acre was no-tilled into the closely mowed fescue and into the 8-inch fescue. No burndown was used. The vetch grew through and over the fescue and eventually smothered it out.

The closely mowed fescue had more vetch growth early because there was less shading, but by May there was no apparent difference. The vetch was not killed since the field is still in the CRP program. The fescue was completely killed by the vetch. The vetch could be pulled back and only a few yellow blades of fescue could be found.

Samples were collected in mid-June when the hairy vetch was setting seed pods. The sample showed a production of 12,000 pounds of dry matter per acre with a 16% crude protein value. The 6 tons of forage and the protein were both much higher than expected. The 12,000 pounds of dry matter equals 307 pounds of nitrogen in the top portion and 38 pounds in the roots, for a total of 345 pounds. Note that the vetch was allowed to grow 3 to 6 weeks longer than normal if corn was going to be planted. However, the maximum amount of high quality forage was achieved.

Research has shown 80 to 100 pounds of nitrogen available to a corn crop following vetch. The soil tilth under the vetch was much better than fescue adjacent to it. The soil was loose and moist and showed many earthworm burrows. The hairy vetch would have provided an excellent medium to no-till into.

There was one problem with the hairy vetch. It does not tolerate wet soils and where the field dropped off into a small creek bottom, the vetch died out. On similar fields there could be areas where there would be no vetch. These areas would have to receive extra nitrogen.

The results of no-tilling the hairy vetch into CRP grass was so dramatic that it has attracted the attention of many people. Farm Journal has taken pictures for an article. I have spoken at Field Days in Dixon Springs and Ewing and am scheduled to speak at Jasper County. I initiated a discussion on CRP that has evolved into the Southern Illinois CRP Task Force. The Task Force has set up five acres of plots on CRP ground in each of seven counties and has meetings scheduled at Mt. Vernon on February 21 and Mario on the 22nd. I will be on both programs discussing no-tilling hairy vetch into CRP sods.

Without the SARE grant I would likely have gone to conventional tillage to bring my 280 acres of CRP back into crop production. That would have increased my cost and soil erosion. I know that I can no-till hairy vetch and grow a lot of my own nitrogen and have a better seedbed.

B. My experience with hairy vetch had been broadcast seeding it into wheat stubble along with phosphate and potash for the next crop. This has worked well but I wanted to try it no-till. We split a 40 acre field of wheat stubble with part of the vetch no-till drilled and part conventionally disked in. The no-till area was mowed prior to seeding.

The no-till drilled vetch was able to compete successfully with weeds. A good stand was obtained for the whole field. Corn was no-tilled into the vetch on May 20. There was a very heavy growth of hairy vetch and there was some problems getting the seed into the furrow. The field also had to be treated for cutworms. A final stand of 16,000 population was achieved, somewhat less than the desired 19,000. The field has experienced a lot of erosion in the past and is not considered productive. The field also experienced a lot of dry weather in the summer and produced a final yield of 84 bushels per acre of dry corn. Neighbors reported 90 to 100 bushel yields on nearby “good” soils.

Hairy vetch can be no-tilled into wheat stubble. The savings would be small since a broadcast seeding could be combined with a fertilizer application. Then the drilling could be substituted for a disking. However, the disking does control weeds. The no-tilling would be a plus where soil erosion was a problem.

C. Hairy vetch ahead of milo offers the opportunity to grow much of the nitrogen needs of the milo crop. Milo requires warmer (65 degree F) soil temperatures than corn (55 degrees F). This extra time would allow the vetch to produce more growth and thus more nitrogen before being killed. Incorporating the vetch makes 20% more nitrogen available to the milo crop. Research at Dixson Springs Research Center showed a three year average for nitrogen fixed by vetch to be 55 pounds on April 20; 85 pounds on May 3, and 115 pounds by May 17.

Milo is considered more drought tolerant than corn and is often planted on the lighter soils. These are the soils more likely to be seeded to wheat and thus to hairy vetch. One barrier to adoption of hairy vetch is the temptation to double crop wheat stubble to soybeans. We no longer double crop and our yields seem to have picked up.

Hairy vetch was seeded at 22 pounds per acre with one bushel of spring oats in September of 1993. A hundred pounds of 0-46-0 and one hundred pounds of 0-0-60 were disked in along with the hairy vetch and spring oats. Wheat was the previous crop and the stubble had been disked in late July to control weeds.

The hairy vetch and oats grew well, with the oats surviving until a very hard freeze about December 10. The west part of the field did suffer some stunting and injury from drift from a field across the road that had an early pre-emergence spray. The hairy vetch was incorporated by disking on May 14, 1994. The field was seeded to milo on May 27 in 15 inch rows. Pioneer 8515 was used. The field was sprayed with 2 ½ quarts of Bicep plus 35 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre. On July 1 plots were laid 20’ by 414.5’ long with 3 treatments and 4 random replications. The treatments were: no sidedress nitrogen; 25 pounds and 50 pounds sidedress. Ammonium nitrate was the nitrogen source used. The plots were harvested October 16.

1: 139.7, 128.7, 113.4
2: 140.7, 113.4, 129.2
3: 114.5, 112.4, 088.2
4: 123.9, 073.5, 099.8

Average 129.7, 107.0, 107.6

Lodging was a problem in two of the A treatments; two of the B treatments; and three of the C treatments. There was no relationship between lodging and nitrogen rate. Lodging also occurred outside of the plot area.

A side-by-side comparison of Pioneer 8515 and 8699 was also measured and weighed. The 8515 yielded 140 bushels and the 8699 yielded 106 bushels per acre. The dilemma is the 8515 is the variety used in the plot that lodged. Does a producer go with a high yielding variety that lodges or with a lower yielding variety that stands?

A good stand of hairy vetch incorporated plus 35 pounds of nitrogen adequately supplies the nitrogen needs of a milo crop. A similar plot in 1993 produced identical yields with all three treatments. In 1994 extra sidedress nitrogen actually reduced yields by 22 bushels. The unanswered question is whether hairy vetch incorporated would supply all the nitrogen needs of milo.

[Editor’s Note: The following is advice on growing cover crops in CRP ground based on Walt Townsend’s experiences.]

Cover Crops in CRP
By Walt Townsend

Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will come out of the 10 year program soon. Wheat could be seeded in the fall of 1995 or corn, beans or milo in the spring of 1996 for fields receiving their first payment in 1986 from the first or second sign-up. A large amount of land will come out in the fall of 1996/spring of 1997 from the sign-up with the corn base bonus.

CRP land returning to crop production will need to meet conservation compliance standards to remain eligible for USDA benefits. No-till will be the main way to meet erosion standards. No-till would build on the improvements to the soil structure that has occurred during the past 10 years. Most of these fields are in a heavy grass cover, and there is some concern about no-tilling into this cover.

Hairy vetch may offer a way to provide nitrogen for the next crop, improve the soil and be an excellent material to no-till into. A plot in Wayne County has demonstrated that hairy vetch can be no-tilled into a heavy fescue sod and smother the fescue out. Hairy vetch was no-till drilled into fescue in late August at 20 pounds per acre. In 1993, there was no difference in the hairy vetch growth where the fescue was mowed extremely low or 8 to 10 inches high. Logic would say that mowing height could affect growth some years. No herbicides were used to burn back or kill the sod.

The hairy vetch produced a large amount of growth in the spring of 1994. The hairy vetch actually smothered the fescue and only scattered, yellow shoots of fescue could be found under the hairy vetch. The sod had started breaking down in the high humidity environment under the vetch. The soil was mellow and provided an excellent seedbed. Voles and mice were not present in the hairy vetch in 1994.

On the downside, voles could be a problem, but may be less so than in a heavy grass sod. Soil moisture levels must be monitored closely as the hairy vetch can remove a large amount of moisture. This can allow earlier planting in a wet spring, or the loss of valuable moisture in a dry spring. Don’t grow hairy vetch unless you own a spade and know how to use it. Hairy vetch does not tolerate wet soils so expect little growth in bottoms or waterways.

Our suggestions would be:

• Mow CRP acres short close to seeding time.
• No-till drill the hairy vetch at approximately 20 pounds per acre in mid-to late August. Use a higher rate for September.
• Inoculate with a pea-vetch inoculant.
• Plant corn when soil conditions are right – don’t wait for extra growth.

Other options for using hairy vetch in CROP include growing it for a seed crop. Rye or canola may need to be added as a trellis crop for the vetch. Another possibility is to use it for a hay crop. The 20 pound seeding rate should give a nearly pure vetch hay crop. A 5 to 10 pound rate would likely allow some of the grass to survive.

The hairy vetch should produce approximately 80 pounds of nitrogen. Seed cost will be 60 to 70 cents a pound plus inoculant. Also, add a charge for the no-till drill. A no-till planter set up for milo can also be used but splitting the middles would be recommended. One producer reports success with seeding 3 pounds of vetch a year before a full crop is wanted, and letting it seed itself.


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.