Steinlage emphasizes that seed quality is key to success with cover crops. His rules for selecting seed are simple:
- Know where it comes from.
- Know who grows it.
- You don't have to know everything when you can call the guy who grew the seed.
- If the seedsman can't tell you, don't buy his seed.
Low commodity prices aren't stopping Iowa farmer Loran Steinlage from interseeding cover crops in his cornfields. In fact, he would argue the practice is helping keep his financial head above water. While personal family health concerns kept him too busy to replicate practices with controls to compare yields, he refers to his checkbook as proof that the practice works on his 750 acres of corn and beans.
"The first field that I interseeded about nine years ago is 15 bushels ahead of every other field I farm," says Steinlage. "It is incremental gains on every field that keeps driving me. I have cover crops on every field, not to save the world in some touchy feely way, but because they pay their way. "
Experimenter and innovator
In those nine years, Steinlage has tried just about everything he could think of or had heard about that might work on his farm. For much of his success, he credits his father Florian and a broad network of fellow cover crop enthusiasts in the U.S. and Canada who share their ideas and experiences.
"I've learned that the more I share with others, the more they share with me," says Steinlage. "I was dabbling with interseeding when I heard a farmer from Quebec give a talk at a meeting. Afterward we visited and discovered we were doing similar things, though he called it innerseeding. Comparing notes, we realized we were onto something."
He was dabbling with broadcasting annual rye and clover early in the season. Over time, that has evolved to precision planting various mixes and moving ever earlier in the season. This past summer he tried as many as 17 different seeds in a field at V4. All grew for a time, some died and others went dormant to revive later in the season.
Root growth is key
"The oats didn't make it, but while they thrived they were very beneficial to the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil," says Steinlage. "I'm not after a perfect stand. If I'm growing roots, I'm sinking carbon into the soil. I do want as many as possible to overwinter."
That doesn't mean he spends a dollar more than needed. Even with a mix that includes radish, rape, buckwheat, flax, clovers and hairy vetch, he spends less than $14 per acre. It does mean that he is constantly looking for ways to lower costs even more, like sidedressing and seeding cover crops in a single pass. "Last year we sidedressed and followed a week later by seeding as proof of concept and to find out what not to do," says Steinlage.
"The biggest thing we learned is proper spacing of the cover crop seed and the fertilizer. Putting urea down three inches and drilling the cover crop over it wasn't a good idea, and banding cover crops to either side of the fertilizer band just makes for lazy legumes in the cover crop mix. It also forces the corn roots to go through the cover crops to get to the nitrogen."
If he gets all the hardware he needs, Steinlage plans to lay urea into the corn row with dry urea drops fabricated in his shop, and place his cover crop seed between the rows.
For corn following soybeans, he is conducting an even bigger experiment. "I use Dawn DuoSeed units on my toolbar with a Montag system to precision place cereal rye in soybean stubble the day we combine beans," says Steinlage. "I index the rye to where the corn row will be, leaving 10 to 12 inches between the future corn row and the rye. Last year I planted the corn April 27th, but didn't terminate the rye until mid-May."
Since he only wants to set the rye back until the corn can emerge, not necessarily kill it, he is fabricating 12-inch-wide smooth rollers. Thanks to the rye, the only weeds he has to worry about are in the corn row, and they will get a dose of acetoclor, atrazine and possibly dicamba. The idea is to gain the biological benefits of living plants in the row space and a living mulch that holds down weeds without rye's allelopathic impact on germinating seeds.
"To my knowledge, the allelopathy is only released when the rye dies and begins to break down," notes Steinlage. "With this system, the corn will already have emerged before I terminate the rye."
If the program is successful, the rye may not be terminated at all. Instead, Steinlage will simply supplement it with additional cover crop varieties when he sidedresses with his one-pass system. Successful or not, more changes are underway.
Undies prove manure value
Thanks to a "#SoilYourUndies" soil health test, Steinlage has added a goal to spread manure on all his fields. He credits growers in Ontario, Canada, with coming up with the test that showed him the benefits of combining manure with cover crops first hand. Following their lead, this past spring he buried 11 cotton briefs in fields across the farm, including one where manure had been spread the previous fall.
"When I dug them up six weeks later to display at a field day on the farm, they really showed what was going on in the different fields," says Steinlage. "It was clear the manure made a heck of a difference."
The innovative grower has more experiments up his sleeve. "We keep learning," says Steinlage.