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Using Cover Crops in River Bottoms

This isn't Ray's field - but it gives an idea of the power of rivers.

A recent CCSI-HAT Soil Health Podcast: “Cover Crops in the River Bottoms?!”, contains valuable tips for utilizing cover crops in river bottoms. You can find the podcast here: Wait. What? No till and cover crops in river bottoms. Everyone knows you just can’t do it, right? Well, wrong!

Ray McCormick, a producer in Southern Knox County joins Lisa Holscher, Director of Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative (CCSI) to discuss how he is doing the seemingly impossibly in his operation. Ray farms steep and challenging terrain with plenty of rolling hills. He also farms a lot of river bottoms, around 1000 acres. Ray readily admits that he used to moldboard plow the river bottoms because everyone knows you have to, right?

In the 60s and 70s, Ray began no-tilling a lot of his ground. Cover crops were added to his operation in the late 90s and early 00s. Initially, cover crops were just used as something to plant when the land got flooded out – prevent plant cover crop usage. Ray’s love of wildlife and migratory birds grew his interest in cover crops as he noticed a huge increase in his wildlife visitors with covers on the ground. The nutrient building and soil health benefits of cover crops increased his passion for cover cropping. He also enjoys the beauty of covered fields – plush, green fields! Ray began using covers for winter cover – especially on erodible ground. He noticed weed control and good crop yields on grounds with constant cover and decided to transition into the river bottoms. Ray spent time learning which cover crops to use, the proper timing of planting and terminating, and what species to use before the next cash crop.

L - Tilled Neighbor's Field, R - McCormick's No-Till + Annual Ryegrass

Initially, Ray seeded covers by drilling. He recognized that this method was hard on the tractor tires, hard on the rubber on the drills, AND, he was giving up a person during harvest to perform the seeding. He thought there had to be a better way. After seeing a presentation at the National No-Till Conference about running residue through your corn head and spraying out cover crops under the nose of the corn head, he had to put an air seeder on his head and try it! Ray now seeds with his combine and asserts that it is the BEST way to put on cover crops. This cuts 2 trips down the field to just one and doesn’t require an extra person. Ray says he easily made up for the cost of the seeders and marvels at the accuracy. He’s been able to reduce his seeding rate because of this highly efficient method.

Ray - Refilling His Combine-Mounted Seeder

This podcast is a must-listen! Ray’s enthusiasm is contagious. He tells us all about why he doesn’t chop his stalks, noting, “Residue is my friend and I want to feed the soil biology.” Ray also talks about the quality of his soil, particularly in the river bottoms, and how he has been able to reduce his costs by reducing inputs. Ray’s system allows him to get back into the field faster after big rains than he could before using these methods. Cover crops are such an important part of his operation that they are used on every acre no matter when they harvest even if it’s November!

Tune in to this highly entertaining and informative (and short!) podcast. You won’t want to miss Ray discussing his A-HA moment!

Sheila Schroeder

CCSI Northern Program Manager


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