How to plant into thick cover crops

Two farmers share their strategies for planting green

Blake Vince has devised several equipment modifications to manage seeding through thick residue.

Accounting for corn stalks in the spring is one thing. Planting through thick green cover crops is another. 

Standard planter setups don’t quite cut it in such cases. For Blake Vince and Larry Dyck, who are both cover crop enthusiasts and experimenters, on-farm equipment customization has been the solution. 

Why it matters: Thick green cover crops pose challenges at planting, such as achieving good seed depth and a closed seed trench. Planter augmentations can remedy both issues. 

Blake Vince, Merlin

To plant into a four to five-specie cover crop mix — the overwintered remnants of an initial 18-specie mixture — Vince uses a variety of attachments on his 1980s-era John Deere 7000 corn planter. 

At the front sit Yetter Stalk Devastators. Built as a corn head harvest aid, they act as an effective roller, particularly when followed by subsequent rolling row baskets. Downforce pressure on the rolling baskets is controlled via small airbags. 

Next come open-spoked Mudsmith Gauge Wheels adjacent to the cutting disks, followed by a preceding guard and subsequent Flo-Rite seed firmer, stiffened with a spinal wire, on the seed tube.

“What’s nice about them is the residue will roll out through the spokes, so we don’t have problems and the double-disc opener can still travel,” says Vince. 

“When the residue is still green and succulent, they cut through it like a knife through butter. When it gets dry and there isn’t the resistance to cut it, it’s a totally different ball game.”

Two modes of action are used to close the seed trench. In front are Furrow Cruiser cast closing wheels, followed by arched Yetter bridges featuring two additional wheels behind. 

Yetter and Furrow Cruiser brand wheels are used for the latter and Vince said he is happy with the results provided by each product. 

Patio stones comprise the most recent adaptation. Vince experiments with different corn hybrids to see what works in his heavy clay and green planting environment, so the cement weights in combination with springs on each parallel arm ensure enough ballast when hoppers contain small quantities of seed. 

Such research is a critical part of Vince’s growing strategy. Though yield effects from planting green are a concern, he believes much of the risk can be mitigated by fine-tuning his approach to match his unique growing conditions and focusing on cost savings. 

“I think we can mitigate the risk significantly… We have huge swings in specific hybrids in a given year from performance issues alone,” he says. 

“I’m not trying to control everything. I’m prepared to not worry about being a producer of maximum output so long as my costs are being kept in check, and I’m not spending that money. I work diligently to keep my capital in check.”

Larry Dyck, Niagara

Correct seeding depth was a challenge for Dyck, as was ensuring the seed trench closed properly through substantial quantities of green matter on heavy clay soil. 

He started planting green in 2016 and has settled on a 12 to 14-specie mix planted after wheat harvest. Of those, three or four (usually crimson clover, hairy vetch and the hybrid brassica known as Vivant) overwinter to provide spring green matter. 

Effectively closing the seed trench is one of the main challenges for Dyck’s plant-green strategy. photo: Larry Dyck

The first years of trial and error showed Dyck his planter was not up to the job and was damaged by working in extensive cover. It was replaced with a Case machine and augmented with Dawn ZRX crimpers to keep green matter in and between seed rows. 

Standard four-inch wheels are used on the machine’s row units to prevent too much soil from being kicked to the side and drying quickly, a problem he regularly encountered with wheels of narrower diameter. 

This is followed by a Case-compatible seed firmer, then a two-stage closing system with Copperhead Ag spoked wheels in front and V-shaped closing implements behind. Both in-furrow and side-dressed liquid fertility are applied. 

Like Vince, Dyck says each row unit easily cuts through the soft green matter. 

Dyck is still refining his planting green system. In robust covers, which he defines as “one where you can’t see the soil after the unit passes over it,” it is still a challenge to effectively and consistently close the seed trench. 

“I have not found a closing system that will go through that robust cover. What we discovered is it’s really important to get the seed deep. You do need to be 2.25 or 2.5 inches down,” says Dyck. 

Such depths are possible because crusting and associated seed-entombment concerns associated with his heavy clay soil are negated by the green cover. 

Dyck got interested in planting green after looking for ways to prevent crusting and other production problems. Though initially apprehensive, he says learning to look at the challenges of cover crops from a mechanical rather than agronomic perspective was critical to finding solutions. 

“The problems are technical in nature. We had to learn to separate the real challenge agronomically and how they are handling their tools wrong. It’s easy to say it was the plant green that was the issue, or was it something I have control over?

“There’s a real difference between an agronomic challenge and an engineering challenge… I’ve not yet encountered something to point at and say it’s the fault of the cover crop.”

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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