Cover Crop Residue Tour

Jonathan and I went on a little farm tour a few weeks ago, and stopped to check on the fields with cover crop residues. We use oats, which we spread on the field with a spin spreader, and Tillage Radish, which is planted with the row crop planter. This past fall had perfect growing conditions for the cover crops, so they grew really well.

We have a three crop rotation on our farm. Each year one-third of our acres are planted into corn, one-third is soybeans, and one-third is a small grain such as wheat. After the wheat is harvested, we apply hog manure to that land for the corn to use the following year. After the manure is incorporated, we plant our cover crop. The root systems of the oats and Tillage Radish are very different, but work in harmony to improve soil health. The oats stimulate microorganisms in the soil that digest the organic matter making the nutrients available for the corn to use in the spring. Oats are also good at suppressing weeds.  The Tillage Radish tap root breaks up compacted soil, and creates water channels that help the soil to hold water instead of the water running over the top. Both the oats and Tillage Radish are good at storing nutrients from the manure in their stems and roots, which are released when the organic matter is worked into the soil in the spring.

oat cover crop

Here you can see how the stems from the oats formed a thick layer over the soil. This field had no wind erosion this past spring, even though we have had some extremely windy days. The soil underneath was cooler and wetter than our fields without a cover crop.

cover crop finding radish

We were looking for some Tillage Radish residue and the holes they leave behind. The end rows in this field only had Tillage Radish planted, due to timing issues. It also makes for a good experiment to have just the radish in areas that typically suffer from compaction issues. We found a few rows where the tops of the radish were above ground, so we could look at how they decompose.
cover crop pulling radish

You can see how Jonathan was able to tease the radish out of the ground. The top of the radish was exposed through the winter, and was a little spongy when squeezed.

cover crop decaying root

You can see how part of the root has decomposed, yet some remained. This was the part just under the soil line. It was much softer than the top of the plant.

cover crop tillage radish depth test

Here I was trying to see how deep the root channel was. I couldn’t touch the bottom. The root channels vary in size depending on how close the radishes were planted, and how large they grew.

cover crop radish hole

This hole wasn’t as big in diameter as the other one, but was very deep. When it rains, these holes give the water a place to go instead of the rain just running over the top of the soil. It is one reason we use our corn planter to plant the Tillage Radish in rows. When we plant corn over the same rows in the spring, the corn benefits from the moisture held in the soil.

Using a cover crop has become an important part of our rotation. We are seeing the benefits in increased soil organic matter, better water holding capacity, and better erosion control. We are also seeing benefits to the environment in wildlife activity (deer love the tillage radish), water holding capacity, and erosion control. A true win win!

Tillage Radish Cover Crop Update

The neighbors have been asking, so here is an update on our Tillage Radish and Oat cover crop.

We have received more rain this fall than we have during the same time period the last two years, so our cover crops have gotten off to a great start. We planted this field on August 31st. You can read about the process here.

Neighbors are starting to ask what we have growing in our field. They know one of the plants is a small grain (wheat, oats, barley, and rye are considered small grains), but they are not sure what the other crop is that was planted in rows. This made me think that maybe the rest of you would like to see what our neighbors are seeing.

This first photo shows the tillage radish planted in rows with oats in between the rows.

Tillage radish planted in rows
Tillage radish planted in rows

This is the overview of the field. You can see how the Tillage Radish is more noticeable in the oats.

Cover Crop of Tillage Radish and Oats
Cover Crop of Tillage Radish and Oats

The radish leaves are broad, and very different from other crops grown in our area. The leaves and the root will almost disappear completely over the winter, leaving the nutrients behind in the soil.

CarolynCares Cover Crop 3
Close up of the Tillage Radish leaves

I wanted to see how big the radish taproot was 38 days after planting. To make sure I was getting a random radish, I walked out into the field, and plopped my shovel near a row. That was the one I would dig up.

Choosing a random radish to dig
Choosing a random radish to dig

The soil is still pretty moist after our weekend rains, so digging was easy. I wanted to get as much of the taproot as I could, so I teased it out of the loosened dirt.We are in a wind advisory, so holding the radish still enough for a photo outside was a bit of a challenge.

Freshly dug Tillage Radish
Freshly dug Tillage Radish

I walked back into the house to measure the length of the taproot. The diameter is just shy of 1/2 inch at its widest. I was impressed that the roots measured at 8 1/2 inches already!

Measuring the Tillage Radish Taproot
Measuring the Tillage Radish Taproot

I believe I was able to tease out the entire taproot, and didn’t break off the end, but it was difficult to tell without a magnifying glass. Here is another view of the root length.

Closer view of the root system of the Tillage Radish
Closer view of the root system of the Tillage Radish

As long as we don’t have a hard freeze (around 20 deg F), the radish will continue to grow both in diameter and length. I’ll take a few more photos in a couple of weeks, and give you another update. In the meantime, we are getting ready to finish harvesting our last field of soybeans.







Teaching Flat Ryan About Cover Crops

FlatRyan is the brainchild of a few fabulous agvocates who took over the Agriculture Proud blog while Ryan is finishing his Master’s degree. You can read all about it and learn how to participate here. This blog post first appeared on Agriculture Proud on September 18th.

On the last day of August, #FlatRyan got in on a little cover crop planting on our farm. Saturday was pretty warm for Minnesota standards, but it was a good day to get some work done.  We do things a little differently than most of our neighbors, which sometimes leads to many questions. We farm organic row crops, so we follow different rules. One of those rules is a three crop rotation.  Each year, we have approximately one-third field corn, one-third soybeans, and one-third small grain (wheat, and a mix of barley & field peas).  We use cover cropping to help lock in nutrients, for weed control, and to prevent soil erosion.

The field we were working in had been a barley and field pea field.  The barley and peas had been harvested, the straw baled, and manure applied for next year’s corn crop.  The manure was worked into the soil with a deep till chisel plow before we seeded oats with a broadcast spreader. The oats were worked in with the field cultivator, which was set to go only an inch or two deep.  We were then ready to try something we’ve never done before.

#FlatRyan, Pongo the Rat Terrier, and I took the Ranger across the road to check in with Jonathan and see how he was doing.

Pongo Meeting Flat Ryan

We have been seeding Tillage Radish with our oats for a few years. Tillage Radish is different from the radishes you grow in your garden. A Tillage Radish has a pretty strong tap root that can break up compacted layers in the soil. The root keeps nutrients locked up over the winter, and when the plant dies, it leaves a hole the size of the radish that the corn plant’s roots will be able to use to grow bigger.

Tillage Radish and Full Size Sharpie
Tillage Radish and Full Size Sharpie

Last year, we attended a cover cropping seminar, and heard about a study that was being done where they planted the Tillage Radish seed with the corn planter, using sugar beet plates.  To us, it made total sense. Using GPS mapping in the tractor, we have the capability of planting the corn directly over the rows that we planted the Tillage Radish in. We weren’t sure exactly how well it would work, or if the Precision Planting system would be able to accurately measure how many seeds per acre we were planting.  This is where #FlatRyan joined us.

When Jonathan got to the end, we needed to check the planter boxes to see if he was planting the correct number of seeds per acre.  Here, #FlatRyan is looking to see how much seed is left in the first box. FlatRyan2 carolyncares

It was decided that Jonathan needed more seed, so #FlatRyan, Pongo, and I headed to the seed shed in the yard. Many of our bags are white with no markings, so reading a seed tag is important. Tillage Radish comes in colorful bags, so they were easy to spot.

FlatRyan3 carolyncares

We loaded a couple of bags into the back of the Ranger, and went back across the road to meet the planter once again.

FlatRyan4 carolyncares

Jonathan split the 50 pounds of seed between the 16 boxes, and we put the other bag in the rock box. We still weren’t sure how much would be needed to finish this field. #FlatRyan was so excited by how well the planter was working to plant the radish seeds that he was kicking up his heels!

FlatRyan5 carolyncares

Not long after Jonathan finished planting this field, the clouds rolled in, and we were blessed with ½ inch of rain!

FlatRyan6 carolyncares

This is how the field looked 10 days after we planted the Tillage Radish. Looks like both the oats and the radish are off to a good start!

radish seedling carolyncares

After #FlatRyan’s weekend with us, Jonathan and I seeded and planted our wheat fields the same way. In the last field, we planted 46 acres of Tillage Radish like we did in the barley and pea field. We were racing with the rain on the last day, so we decided to broadcast seed the oats and Tillage Radish on the remaining 100 acres. Then, for good measure, we left about 8 acres as a check strip. That way, we have all three methods in one field.  Next spring we will till the field with the field cultivator, which will disturb the decayed matter and small weeds on the surface, but will preserve the channels created by the Tillage Radish.

We hope #FlatRyan had fun helping us with our experiment! This is one experiment that will take a long time to see the results, but in the meantime, it does keep the neighbors guessing about what we’re up to!

To see more of Flat Ryan’s adventures, click here. He’s had a lot of fun, and has learned some amazing things so far!