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Standard practice

Jay Moser relies on cover crops to help manage soil health, fertility, and yields
Story and photos by: Glen Liford 8/7/2019


Jay Moser, left, believes cover crops are just as important as the money crops he grows as an integral part of his more than 2,000 acres of row crops in Jefferson County. Here, Jay and farm manager Jonathan Mixon, center, discuss the advantages of specific cover options with Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Agronomy Specialist Tom Bible at the Moser farm in March.
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Cover crops are just as important as the money crop.

That’s the message Jefferson County row crop farmer Jay Moser wants to communicate to his fellow producers.

While some might see them as an afterthought, Jay says the practice is key to all he has been able to accomplish on the more than 2,000 acres of row crops he raises near Jefferson City.

Jay, who farms with son Jake and the help of farm manager Jonathan Mixon, relies on a mix of various cover crops to keep his soil in good shape and improve yields from his corn and soybean crops. The practice is an integral part of Jay’s efforts to be a good steward of the soil.

“Farmers really underutilize cover crops,” says Jay. “I have no doubt about that. It is hard to sell them on cover crops because they may not see [an immediate] benefit. They want to put something in the ground they can sell the next year. They can’t visually see [the value] or measure [the benefit]. It is really hard.

“The major benefit we have gained isn’t weed suppression, rather it has improved our organic matter. Some soils that have been in the cover crop program are showing organic matter values in the 4-5% range. This organic matter is allowing our soils to hold more water in dry periods, it is furnishing nutrients to the crop, and is allowing those nutrients to be held season to season.”

“The three most important dates of the year are the corn planting date, the soybean planting date, and the cover crop planting date,” agrees Jonathan.

Jay relies on a mix of barley, Austrian winter peas, crimson clover, and vetch for his cover crops, and says he may try some brassica this fall.

Jay began his experience using cover crops with vetch because it was winter hearty, he says.

“We put it down because it furnished nitrogen for the corn crop and gave us a cover that often stayed through the summer if it was sown thick enough. It would give us some moisture-holding advantage during dry periods.”

Always seeking a better solution, Jay added rye to the mix. But it required more intensive management and posed challenges when the weather was uncooperative. He recalls one particularly wet spring when the rye got “out of hand and couldn’t be managed.”

“We had about 150 acres we never planted because the rye got ahead of us,” he says. “We couldn’t get the planter through it. It [grew higher than] the tractor cab, and it kept wrapping around the gears [on the planter]. We tried ‘bushhogging’ it, and we couldn’t even do that. We just gave up and stopped using it.”

Jay says he realizes rye can be a good choice when managed properly and the weather cooperates, but he has chosen to use barley instead.

“It doesn’t grow as tall, it’s easy to manage, and it has a prolific root system,” he explains. “It’s worked for us.”

Some producers rely on a much more complicated mix for their cover crops, says Jay.

“They may have 10 or 15 different covers,” he says. “It gets to be a management issue at some point. I don’t know how important it is to mix it up like that.”

The practice has improved his soil’s health, however, and he believes the method has in turn increased yields. He cites how a mistake in applying nitrogen confirmed his belief.

Jay had test plots on the farm several years ago, and once half were harvested the average was 252 bushels per acre. They had used a 12-row injector to apply the liquid nitrogen with a rolling coulter under pressure in the middle. After the corn got waist high, Jay could see they had missed 12 rows with the nitrogen application.

“When we shelled the corn, we kept that 1,000-foot strip out and weighed and measured it separately,” he says. “Those 12 rows yielded 159 bushels with no nitrogen. It had to get it somewhere. If you do the numbers, you’re still better off to do the nitrogen to get 252, but 159 bushels was pretty significant without any [nitrogen] put in. It was coming out of that ground where we had cover crops.

“Our cover crop program is the key to the yields we’ve had, in my opinion,” he adds. “It’s as important as our no-till practice, the varieties we select, and the fertility levels.”

Jay suggests that producers looking to add the practice of using cover crops to their operation should make that decision so the plan is in place at harvest.

For assistance with selecting cover crops to fit your needs, visit with the professionals at your local Co-op.

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