AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—Heavy bouts of rainfall and strong storms created the perfect scenario for Alabama producers to talk about the many benefits of planting cover crops during the winter season.
Audrey Gamble, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System soil scientist, said the weather throughout winter months in Alabama has allowed for thought-provoking conversations surrounding use of cover crops and off-season land management plans.
“I’ve started many meetings during the past few months by saying ‘It’s a great day to talk about cover crops,’” Gamble said.
Cover Crop Use in Alabama
While there are many producers who deem cover crops worth the work, there may be just as many who have not made the decision to incorporate a winter cover in their crop rotation.
The most recent Census of Agriculture shows an uptick in the use of cover crops in the state. In fact, numbers show a 15 percent increase in Alabama acres utilizing cover crops. Acreage in 2017 was up to 229,097 in comparison to the 199,215 acres reportedly planted in cover in the 2012 ag census.
What is the Hold Up?
Gamble said many producers are utilizing cover crops for a variety of reasons.
“There are so many producers who are seeing on-farm benefits after incorporating a winter cover,” she said. “However, there are still those who are trying to justify the time, money and effort that go along with adding an additional crop to the rotation.”
Gamble said she asks producers who are considering a cover incorporation what they would like to achieve by adding a rotation.
“Like with any business plan, it is important to identify needs—whether it is erosion control, weed suppression, soil moisture storage or increased organic matter. It is important to begin with a goal in mind,” Gamble said.
From there she begins work with farmers to develop a customized plan that is well-suited to their environment and their operation.
Cover Crops and Benefits
There are plenty of options for producers looking to incorporate a cover crop. Gamble said some of the most commonly recommended winter covers include:
- Small grains. These crops are commonly planted when producers need to add biomass to the soil, which is necessary for weed suppression and soil moisture storage. Cereal rye is a common recommendation because of its adaptability to a range of climates and soil types.
- Legumes. Legume crops provide supplemental nitrogen to cash crops. Crimson clover, hairy vetch and Austrian winter pea are commonly-planted legumes in Alabama.
- Brassicas. Brassica crops, such as Daikon radishes or turnips, can help scavenge for nutrients deep in the soil profile.
- Mixtures. Mixtures are ideal for producers who have multiple goals. For example, a mixture of rye, brassicas and legumes can be planted when producers are trying to achieve ground cover early, as well as later on. Legumes add an additional growth later in the season.
Gamble said mixtures, specifically, allow for fuller coverage throughout the growing season.
“Most producers prefer to stick with small grains, but there is a growing interest in cover crop mixtures, as well as the benefits provided by a mixture,” she said.
Cover Crop Adoption and Options
Gamble said the increase in adoption is encouraging and facilitating the use of cover crops in full-scale operations.
“Money and time are two things that are difficult for producers to allocate to cover crop adoption,” Gamble said. “It can be difficult to make time for planting cover crops in the middle of cash crop harvest. However, I see many producers choose to make this a priority once they see the benefits cover crops can have on their farm.”
Gamble said she also points out the different ways for sowing cover crop seed. Producers can drill it in with a no-till drill, spread seed via broadcast or through aerial application.
“Be sure that there is good soil moisture when you fly on a cover crop,” Gamble said. “Small grains and brassicas tend to get a better stand with aerial seeding than legumes.”
Future of Cover Crops in Alabama
She also emphasized the important role government assistance can play during the cover crop selection process.
“Interest in cover crops is really growing,” Gamble said. “I like to share both grower assistance information, as well as additional learning materials.”
- Southern Cover Crops Council has developed a plethora of reading material and other information to help farmers make informed decisions.
- Alabama Healthy Soils is a resource that includes both regional and state-specific guidelines for incorporating cover crops on-farm.
- NRCS provides financial assistance to producers to incorporate cover crops through programs like EQIP and CSP. Contact your local NRCS office for additional information.
More information on cover crops and an implementation plan are available by visiting www.aces.edu. Gamble said she is also available for consultations to help producers manage their land and cover crop needs.