ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

What cover crop can I roll down for early corn planting?

Posted November 9, 2006

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

I am in the process of building a roller and would like information on the cover crop that I can roll the soonest in the spring in order to get corn in the ground by May 10.

Steven Colvin

Dear Steven,

You just asked the million-dollar question. Almost every farmer would like a cover crop that supplies enough nitrogen to grow a good crop of corn and be ready to roll down by the 10th of May. The reality, as it stands today, is that this cover crop doesn't exist for us in northern climates. In the southern states where the winter is more mild, crops like crimson clover work very well. For us here in Pennsylvania, hairy vetch is a better choice, but it often can't be rolled till the last week of May or even June 1—not what we'd prefer.

In my mind, this prompts the question we need to pose to seed breeders: Can you breed earlier flowering into our selected cover crops? The answer has been “yes.” Dr. Tom Devine at the USDA research station in Beltsville, Maryland, has developed a variety that flowers at least 10 days to 2 weeks earlier. I seriously believe this could be done with many other cover crop species.

There are of course other cover crops that can be rolled. Rye, wheat or barley could work and be rolled earlier but aren't legumes. Winter peas, radish and many other annuals could work. Some trial and error is bound to take place on the learning curve. I will tell you that it is critical to the system that one is patient and wait till the optimum time to roll to prevent re-growth. While this isn't always easy, it seems to be very important to the success of the operation. So, in reflecting on your question, there is no “wonder plant” that will work everywhere with every crop or that will do exactly what you want. But, if you are willing to compromise on some points, I believe the system will work for you. You may want to contact Dr. Steve Zwinger at North Dakota State (701-652-2951), who is a partner on our project and may have some information from a site closer to you.