Some soybean farmers in the U.S. Midwest were able to plant soybeans earlier than average in 2020. That could set the stage to incorporate cover crops more effectively into cropping systems.

John Pike, agronomic consultant and researcher from Illinois, discussed details of developing a system to manage soybeans and cover crops at the 2020 Illinois Soybean Association Soybean Summit, an event held by a Qualified State Soybean Board (QSSB). An Illinois AgriNews article summarizes the cover crop breakout session.

According to Pike, early planting increases yield potential and means an earlier, more efficient harvest. Early soybean harvest widens the window for cover crop establishment, improving winter survival, provides the potential for more diverse cover crop mix and offers more options for better cover crop system ahead of corn.1

Research supported by the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council found notable nitrate losses from soybean fields over the winter, between Sept. 1 and May 1. Cover crops play a role in reducing nutrient losses.

“We can potentially capture those nutrients and keep them there for the corn following the soybean crop.” Pike said. “This all fits in as part of the big picture in our systems approach and into the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. We’ll do a better job of preserving our soil resources and better manage the water that runs out of or off our fields.”[1]

Pike also said the more a cover crop develops before winter, the greater the increase in survivability and benefits.

He shared field trial results showing the difference in nitrogen update by rye cover crops based on planting dates. Planting the cover crop at the beginning of October took up more than twice the nitrogen of the cover crop planted at the end of the month.

“As we move later, we’re still getting ground cover and erosion control, but we’re not saving the nitrate loss that we could have with an earlier planting date,” Pike said.1

Pike also shared tips to encourage cover crop establishment and manage nutrient availability for the following crop. He also highlighted yield and soil health benefits.

“That’s another misconception that we have that in order to get any benefit or return from cover crops it takes three to five years out. With the right management, the right program and tweaking these things a little bit we can see better results right out of the gate,” Pike said.1

[1] Early soybeans set stage for cover crops, Illinois AgriNews, May 19, 2020.