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Corn Interseeded Cover Crops

August 14, 2018 by

Seeding covers into production crops is important, trendy, and catching on fast.

16 years ago I had never put a seed in the ground and didn't know how to spell "C-R-P".  After attending two cover crop workshops this spring, by Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta, I am re-configuring my 10' John Deere 1590 no-till grain drill to inter-seed a mix of cover crops into roundup ready corn (see lead article photo).

The grain drill sports your standard grain box and alfalfa box on 7.5" rows.  Not many folks will try planting corn with a grain drill but it works for me.  My harvest is not with a combine.  It is with guests and dogs and shotguns putting fair chase, naturally produced rooster pheasants in their game bags each fall.  My goal is limits for all and that is hard to do in a fair chase self guided model.

Back in 2002 when I first took possession of my own piece of prime SD rooster ground (I wasn't real sure what crop ground was at the time having grown up in a major metro area), the realtor told me "you plant a strip of milo and you'll have every pheasant in the county".  After having grown up hunting pheasants in Iowa in the 80's and 90's on public land and staying in motels hunting from sun up to sun down to try and get a limit of pheasants my natural reaction was "Yeah right".

Well, it seemed as though he was right.  We shot a lot of pheasants that first year.  I am not sure what the change has been over 16 years, but today I have a lot more habitat and it seems like we do not have the birds we used to have back then.  Possibly modern agronomic practices have had a larger impact than we realize or are willing to admit or manage to.  Ring-necked pheasants, by the way, are South Dakota's State Bird don't you know.

Even though the food plots are not harvested with a combine, I am still striving for good yields but for different reasons.  I am still trying to emulate good sustainable production and soil health principles.  The old milo and corn rotation just doesn't work over time because it does not follow soil health basics like rotations.  Two warm season grasses do not make a rotation no matter how much pheasants like them.

What was planted this year was roundup ready corn on 30" rows.  I run the grain flute at cup setting 3 and set the flute width or picker wheel about as wide as the corn seed.  I used to run it at cup 2 but not enough seed would come out of the drill.  Then I have alfalfa, sweet clover, and 2 types of millet running through every other hole in the alfalfa box.  This results in planting in rows adjacent to corn rows.  I created unique separators in the grain box so I could also run a third seed type in the middle row between the other 2 covers.  Various covers were trialed in that row alone.  Next year I plan to develop one ideal 8 species cover mix and run that through the 3 rows in between corn rows or I could even move the corn spacing out to 40" and run milo at 20" and run two rows of covers in between the milo and corn.

So far I am impressed with the weed control this method is seeing.  We have big problems with grass weeds like giant foxtail and sand-bur as well as muck and Canadian thistle.  Delaying planting until June 15 and doing as many burn downs prior to planting as are needed is key to allowing the grass weeds to emerge and set them back with a burn down.  A future rotation could be Roundup Ready corn only and then corn with covers.

The beauty of the interseeding and cover mix is that you can get the covers in early enough for them to do their work.  We can fix up to 200 pounds of organic nitrogen and possibly more.  If managed properly, alfalfa and sweet clover alone can fix 100 lbs of N between May 15 and June 15 if they grow that extra month and are not terminated.  There is great immeasurable biological benefit to this method as well.  I can see a point where I will not have to apply synthetic fertilizers saving me $$ and time by eliminating passes through the field, applicator fees and compaction from heavy equipment.

The fact that these are food cover plots and not production fields allows me to accept a little more risk and trial more practices.  I am using test rates of contact herbicide to set back the covers and not kill them if the corn is not outcompeting the covers so it will produce the yield necessary.

Ultimately, cover crop management and production crop resiliency go hand in hand.