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Cover Crops Help Warm Up and Dry Out Fields

Hans Kok
Hans Kok

Cold and wet field conditions have slowed planting progress this spring, but the use of cover crops can help warm up and dry out a field faster. More and more Indiana farmers are planting cover crops in the fall to hold topsoil in place and to improve soil health. Hans Kok, with the Indiana Conservation Partnership, says cover crops are helping to warm up and dry out fields faster this spring, “We have research that shows fields with cover crops are warmer than fields without. I think it is because of all the biological activity going on underground. Earthworms moving around and microbes getting active.” He added many no-till farmers report that, in side by side tests, fields with cover crops are several degrees warmer.

In addition, farmers who let their cover crops stand a little later in the spring will find the crops are taking up water, helping to dry out fields faster. Thus, Kok said growers should not be in too big of a hurry to kill off their cover crops, “It is fine to let them stay in the field for a while. In fact, you can plant corn or soybeans right into the cover crop and then come back and kill the cover crop later.” He said some adjustments may need to be made to the planter; but, in this late spring, it is OK to plant before the cover crop is removed.

Some cover crops did not do well this winter because of the harsh, cold temperatures. Kok told HAT this year there was an abnormally high level of winter kill, “I have seen fields with green cover crops and some that looked streaky. I have also seen some fields where the cover crops were almost all dead.” He speculates that, in addition to the harsh winter, low nitrogen levels in some fields at the end of last year may have also contributed to the winter kill. He said more research is needed in this area.