When it comes to cereal rye, Mercer County Farm Bureau Director Chad Bell continues to tweak the cover crop system he uses on his Viola farm, but isn’t reluctant to share what he’s learned with other farmers. During Thursday’s virtual Conservation Cropping Seminar, Bell discussed cover crop strategies with corn and soybean crops that “turned my topsoil into - like potting soil.”

Bell noted cereal rye in corn has controlled and prevented soil erosion on his fields, especially in erosion-prone soybean stubble during late winter and early spring. Cereal rye residue less than 12 inches tall decays fairly quickly, while 15-inch cereal rye has enabled cleaner strips for strip-tillage, he added.

However, the young farmer warned weather can be a major factor when farming with cover crops because cold, wet, cloudy weather sets the stage for big potential of seedling disease, allelopathy and problems with nitrogen availability. He recommended not terminating cereal rye taller than 12 inches if a corn crop can’t be planted soon due to bad weather. “The rye (residue) could shade the ground and prevent it from warming up,” he added.

Bell’s management tips for cereal rye in corn include a seeding rate of less than 50 pounds per acre because thin stands will help reduce erosion without completely shading the ground, terminating when rye is less than 8 inches tall as soon as possible in spring, or planting the corn into green rye and applying a minimum of 40 pounds of nitrogen at planting to avoid a yield penalty. Bell advised farmers to consider using strip-till with corn and cereal rye.

Managing cereal rye is easier with soybeans compared to corn, according to Bell. He found planting soybeans into green cereal rye provides a good seeding environment because soybeans can handle the residue. Other residue benefits include weed suppression and topsoil moisture protection.

Bell’s management recommendations for cereal rye with soybeans include a seeding rate of 40-plus pounds per acre, spraying residue only when it’s less than 8 inches tall as soon as possible in the spring - if soybeans will be planted first or the same time as corn. He suggested following the planter with 32 ounces per acre of Roundup to terminate rye when planting green.

Currently, Bell plants soybeans in 15-inch rows. The farmer reported his successful program requires hand pulling and/or spot spraying of field edges and problem spots, especially where waterhemp is a problem.

Bell compared the Roundup Ready weed control costs of a standard program versus cereal rye. “There is an $8 per acre difference overall in the two programs,” he said, pointing out the cereal rye system price tag was $91 per acre compared to $83 per acre for standard weed control.

But several existing programs can defray the cover crop cost, including the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Fall Covers for Spring Savings that offers a $5 per acre premium on USDA Risk Management Agency crop insurance. Bell added he “took full advantage” of the state cover crop program.

On the other hand, the additional $8 per acre “buys” nutrient sequestration, increases the soil’s water holding capacity and biological activity and earns “funny looks from neighbors and retailers because you’re doing things differently,” he said with a laugh.