Planting cover crops on no-till ground is a common practice in other parts of the state and the country. It has been common for years in South America.
Several farmers in Marion County are experimenting with it after learning about it at “No-till on the Plains” in Salina for the past several years. They are finding that cereal rye is a good cover crop for soybeans because after beans are harvested, very little residue is left.
The goal of cover crops is to have no bare or exposed soil.
Rye seed is sown in the fall, much like wheat. The rye is dormant during the winter and comes up in the spring. It can grow as tall as four feet before it begins to head. At that point, the farmer sprays the rye with herbicide and allows the plants to die down. Beans, then, are planted no-till into the residue.
Glen Enns of rural Hillsboro has used rye on soybean ground for two years and plans to continue the practice.
“I am very well pleased with it,” he said. “It does a wonderful job of keeping the soil loose and also suppresses weed germination after the beans are up.”
“Rye has an enormous, thick, fibrous root system,” he said. “Very few other cover crops have that kind of a root system. When the root systems rot, they create soil that is soft and spongy and is efficient in retaining moisture.”
It is common knowledge among farmers that worms thrive in healthy soil. Enns said that is the reward of using cover crops. A year later, he brushes the remaining straw aside and finds worms in the first few inches of top soil.
Enns is not so much concerned about crop yield as he is about soil health. However, he said it stands to reason that, if the biology of the soil is improved, improved yields will follow.
Enns said cover crops seem to provide a much better control of soil erosion than no-till alone. He has been farming no-till for 20 years. When he first started the practice, he said, he expected to see a big drop in soil erosion, but he noticed that even on terraced ground, small gullies formed when there was a lot of rain.
“Our soil is tight, heavy clay and needs loosening up,” he said.
Randy Svitak of Pilsen planted several fields of beans into rye straw this past spring for the first time. He said he has not been doing it long enough to talk about results, but he plans to plant more rye this fall.
Louis Unruh of Hillsboro has been using cover crops for a while. In 2010, soybean fields in his area received less than an inch of rain. He told Enns that the beans planted into rye cover were the highest yielding beans on his farm.
Enns said at least six no-till farmers in southern Marion County are beginning to use cover crops. He emphasized the practice is just beginning and all the pros and cons are not known.
“There are things we are experimenting with, but it’s not a slam dunk,” he said.
He noted that using rye takes good management because it can be detrimental to wheat fields if the seed gets mixed in with wheat seed or drifts into wheat fields.
“It takes some extra management if you share boundaries with a neighbor,” he said.