As soybeans started to blossom in Andy Lacey’s field west of Trent, another plant was in full bloom, sprouting clusters of white within the rows of beans.
The white were the flowers of buckwheat — one of three cover crop species Lacey planted a week after his soybeans this spring.
“The key is to capture the sunlight,” Lacey said.
He’s putting the power of the sun to work growing an array of beneficial plants in one field. Buckwheat helps recycle phosphorus. Sunflowers are in the mix as well, attracting pollinators to keep the population of soybean aphids in check. Lacey hopes he won’t have to spray.
The third species in the mix is one Lacey hopes to be able to turn into a second cash crop. Cereal rye grew thick between the rows of soybeans. Rye doesn’t like heat, and it grew well in the shade of the soybeans. It will overwinter, keeping weed pressure down and soaking up excess moisture. That will help combat harmful cyst nematodes and white mold.
Lacy gave a tour of his fields as part of a soil health field day hosted by the Moody County office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Aug. 1.
This is the first year Lacey has taken on management of the field from his uncle. He hopes to take land that was tilled every year, restore soil health and grow a more diverse crop. This is the first year the field hasn’t been tilled. Cover crops will help him break out of a rotation limited to just corn and soybeans. In future years, he hopes to add small grains.
“I wanted a cash crop and diversity,” he said.
The cover crops will help prepare the land for small grains. They’ll cut down on the chemicals applied to the field, residuals of which can harm a small grain crop.
Next to the soybeans, Lacey planted corn in 60-inch rows. The extra space allowed him to grow rye and other covers in between.
Lacey worked with soil health consultant Cody Nelson of Soil Rx to strategize. This is a learning year, and it’s turned out better than expected.
“A lot of fears I had have not happened,” Lacey said.
One concern was that prolific sunflowers in the cover crop mix could become a weed. They were just 1% of the mix, and deer have been eating them to keep them from spreading.
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Lacey also wasn’t sure planting rye in early June would pan out. It’s usually seeded later in the season, and it needs a freeze cycle to really thrive. It’s possible he’ll have to plant more rye in the fall, he said.
Buckwheat will re-seed itself. Most of the seeds will drop off by the time soybeans are ready for harvest, Nelson said, and others should go through the combine without mixing with the harvested beans.
“Look at it as a free cover crop down the road,” Nelson said.
Buckwheat seed could be sold for cover crops. Nelson would like to see more farmers growing cover crop seed for their neighbors.
He’s also excited about what this pest control approach can do for beneficial insects. Managing for beneficial pollinators can help keep harmful insect populations down with fewer chemicals and side effects. Spraying for one pest usually kills 1,700 other insects — some of which are beneficial, Nelson said.
Other farmers and agronomists shared their experience using rye as a cover crop. Anthony Bly, soil health specialist for South Dakota State University Extension, had rye flown on his corn field near Garretson at black layer last year. Cereal grains grow well from the soil surface, and residue helps provide cover and moisture for the seed to germinate, Bly explained.
He likes how rye serves as a tool for moisture control. It can be left to grow and soak up water during a wet spring or terminated if it’s a dry year.
Mustang Seeds agronomist Chris Lee advises growers to terminate rye at least 10 days before planting corn — otherwise rye can use the nitrogen corn needs to get going early in the season. He also warns against growing rye in wheat areas further west in South Dakota. With an open head, rye can easily intermingle with wheat.
Lee also talked about the importance of leaving crop residue to cover the soil. It helps prevent erosion and provides an array of food for worms and soil organisms. Lee said that diversity is key to “wake up” beneficial soil microbes.
“You don’t go to a Bonanza buffet and eat just one thing,” he said.
NRCS agronomist Eric Barsness had the organization’s newest demonstration up and running, showing the effects of wind on soil erosion. One soil pan contained a sample planted with a green cover. The other was bare to serve as an example of a plowed field. He turned on a contraption made from a leaf blower. Soil from the bare pan spread over the table, while that in the planted pan stayed in place.
“I think a lot of people take wind erosion for granted and don’t realize how big a problem it can be,” Barsness said. “It doesn’t take much wind. Just a little bit of residue will go a long ways.”