Some Rain, Too Late. Cover Crops May Help Protect Soil, Save Nutrients

The half-inch or so of rain in the Midwest this week has sprouted spirits, although with more warm weather forecast, the prospect for a reversal of fortunes on most corn crops is slim. The worst drought in more than 50 years has farmers mowing starved and stunted corn for sileage and bracing for similar hits with soybeans. (Make sure to check the nitrate levels in the corn stalks before saving it…too high a nitrate level can be fatal to livestock.) Even those able to salvage a corn crop this year will see vastly reduced yields.

Purdue’s Extension forage specialist Keith Johnson today recommended planting annual ryegrass, or another forage crop such as spring oat or forage turnip. Seeded early enough (August), farmers could get a grazing off the grass this fall, as well as next spring. Ryegrass would normally have a better chance of wintering over than oats or turnips.

Perhaps the only “silver lining” in the drought news is that there’s probably a lot of residual fertility in the soil that can be saved by planting a late summer cover crop, according to Nick Bowers, a seed grower in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The good news with annual ryegrass: it’s inexpensive, it’s a scavenger of excess N in the soil and, even if it doesn’t germinate this fall, it will sprout next spring. If normal rainfall picks up, aerial seeding will be adequate, but drilling is otherwise advised. For more on seeding, check out this page.

Looking for another silver lining? Iowa State University climatologist Owen Taylor said it appears that this weather pattern – similar to 1956 and 1988 – comes in 20 year cycles. It appears, Taylor said, that we’re headed back to a “normal” pattern with an El Nino forming. Keep your fingers crossed.


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