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Nathan Brown planted green in Highland County this spring.

Planting Green: Is there an advantage in a wet spring?

By Randall Reeder, P.E., Extension agricultural engineer (retired)

Is there an advantage in a wet spring with planting green? Most of the Ohio no-tillers who replied to the question said, “Yes.”

Here are a few specific reasons and additional comments from 10 of our No-Till Council members as they assessed 2019 spring planting heading into June.

David Brandt in Fairfield County was closing in on finishing spring planting with 40 acres of low ground to go. Of course last fall provided poor conditions for cover crop establishment. The late harvest was followed by a rainy November, followed by wet winter with a Polar Vortex. Trying to plant green where there was very little green to plant into did not work this spring, especially in much of the very soggy northwestern portion of Ohio. Further south, there have been relatively more opportunities to plant, though Nathan Brown in Highland County has faced plenty of issues this spring.

“So far this has been the most challenging spring of my career. With a wet fall continuing through to the current date, it has really played havoc to soils across the area,” Brown said. “The gully erosion that was experienced with this wet winter pattern was some of the most extreme we have experienced. The late harvest really played into the limited establishment of cover crops and with little living plant mass, soil loss was high.”

Planting green this spring helped Brown get a jump on some fields.

“I believe that the cover crops has allowed us to plant a little earlier as we are now two-thirds done with corn and soybeans. Planting green has helped hold the planter and tractor up better than our fields without covers. My crops are just beginning to emerge but from my scouting today, it seems my corn is having better emergence in covers verses plain no-till,” Brown said. “With the root mass in the soils it allowed the planter to open and close the seed slot with less compaction in the root zone and has allowed more uniform emergence. In soybeans, we didn’t have great cover stands but has given enough weed suppression that we have reduced our residual and burndown chemical program by half. We will see how the season goes but is looking promising in reducing cost to help pay for the cover crop seeding cost.”

A well-established living cover is a huge advantage because the crop is sucking up excess moisture. But it has to be in continuous no-till, with cover crops, for at least 2 or 3 years to get that advantage. The ground is firmer, reducing compaction.

Cover crops help control weeds, both before and after planting, which reduces herbicide costs. Cover crops also keep the soil warm at night, which can help corn germinate quicker.

Martha Winters in Sandusky County had a puzzling situation with cover crops this spring.

“Where the cover crop stand was the best (55 pounds of cereal rye per acre in soybean ground) the soil was still very wet. With 22 pounds of cereal rye ahead of the corn, the soil dried out much quicker. We were able to plant corn green (22 pounds of cereal rye) into a silty clay loam soil a day before a very fine sand because the heavier spots in the sandy field were still too wet with 55 pounds of cereal rye. We were extremely surprised and disappointed by this,” she said.

But Nathan Brause, who farms in Crawford and Richland counties, said years of building soil health helped, even without a good cover crop this spring.

“We can plant no-till in wetter soils than the worked soils around us because of soil health,” he said. “I drove the planter by waterlogged fields all around me and pulled into the field. It was barely solid enough to hold the tractor up, but planted very well and closed the seed trench.”

A good cover mix also provides habitat for a variety of insects and wildlife (bees, dragonflies, quail, fawns).

Summarizing, having a good cover crop to plant into was an advantage in most cases. And without any cover crop? Erosion is probably the worst ever, even on long-term no-till fields.

For those crops planted in June, keep your fingers crossed for a late frost and timely rains during the heat of summer. Cover crop residue can help keep soils moist.

Prevented planting? Plant something!

If you have made the decision to take “Prevented Planting,” plant a cover crop mix to help build soil health and control weeds.

David Brandt offers these tips: first, decide what crop will be planted next year. If it’s corn, a mix with legumes and grasses. Example: cowpeas, clover, Austrian winter pea, radish, sorghum-sudan. If soybeans will be planted next year, use mostly grasses. Example: oats, millet, radish. In both cases, include some sunflowers to add color. Herbicides applied a month ago should not be a concern because of all the rain.

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