Cover crops called the new zero till

FARGO, N.D. — A conventional corn-bean rotation leaves a lot of land exposed to wind and water erosion. Wider row spacing always equals greater exposure.

There’s nothing new about using a cover crop to protect exposed soil, but planting such a crop between rows of tall corn stalks has historically been viewed as impossible.

Out of desperation, many corn-bean farmers try seeding cover crops with an airplane, usually with poor results.

It appeared that the problem of soil and nutrient runoff would only worsen unless a dedicated device could be developed to meet the challenge.

That’s what Gene Breker of Amity Technology in Fargo, North Dakota, has done. He displayed his prototype cover crop drill at the Big Iron Farm Show earlier this fall to gauge farmer reaction.

With a career in seeding equipment that dates back to the early days of Concord, Breker is typically a step or two ahead of the mainstream. However, this time he was surprised to find that nearly half the corn growers he talked to this summer have already been thinking about or actually tried some sort of mid-row cover cropping.

“In a corn-bean rotation on the northern third of the continent, there’s not enough time after harvest to go in and establish a cover crop before winter,” he said.

“The idea of intercropping, and the idea behind this drill, is to have rye planted between the rows of corn so it establishes and gets a good root system. The corn is knee high or waist high when we go in with the cover crop drill. When the corn leaves start to drop off, the rye is ready to keep growing and provide cover right up until the snow comes.

“We use winter rye because it starts growing right away in the spring. We plant the soybeans directly into the rye crop, then spray the rye out immediately. There’s no intention of ever harvesting it, although I talked to one guy who had volunteer rye and let it go, then harvested 65 bushels that summer.”

Planting the bean crop into the gap between the corn rows has a significant side benefit: not having to wrestle with those hefty hardy B.t. root balls. That’s because the cover crop system gives them one more year to biodegrade on their own. This potentially lowers the investment in buying and operating special equipment to deal with the root balls.

The eight-row 20-foot drill on display at Big Iron is on 30-inch row centres.

As well, it’s on a three point hitch because Breker didn’t want tires on the ground when working in standing corn. If it goes into commercial production, the unit will need to be bigger and the support wheels will have to lift totally up and out of the corn.

It uses Amity components, including the Amity soybean special opener. This is a paired row setup with a six-inch spread and an optional fertilizer coulter down the middle.

“I think this market will grow considerably, but I’m not sure there are too many farmers yet who’ll buy an expensive drill just for seeding cover crop into corn, so we de-signed it to be a multi-purpose machine,” he said.

“You can use it for side banding nitrogen, for strip till or planting soybeans on 15-inch rows. In a corn-bean rotation, this machine will be on every acre of your farm, at least once every year, and sometimes more often. You’ll get good value for your money.”

Breker built the prototype for a research project at North Dakota State University, where Marisol Birti has a federal grant to study the technology associated with cover crops in corn. However, she had no drill, nor could she find a drill capable of meeting their needs.

She approached Breker, who eagerly took on the project. Al-though he works for Amity, Breker said the cover crop drill is not part of that company.

“Amity was nice enough to let us do this on our own,” he said.

“It’ll probably become an Amity machine in the future, but for now NDSU has the drill.”

The university has launched a comprehensive study into cover crop agronomy: best methods, drawbacks, timing issues, comparisons of different crops, rotations, crop insurance liabilities and equipment.

“As this information starts getting around to more farmers, we see more researchers are also looking at it,” Breker said.

“That same federal grant is funding similar research at University of Minnesota and Iowa State University.

“This is almost like the next big step after zero tillage. In the last two years, nearly every farmer I talk to is either doing cover crops or about to start. A few months ago, I talked to a Pioneer seed dealer in Nebraska and he said over half his customers are doing cover crops.”

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