Winter soil erosion and blowing spring dust storms that further depleted soils and damaged young crop plants led Mike Taylor 20 years ago to start a program of cover crops on his Arkansas farm.

Today he and son Mikey, whose 6,500-acre Long Lake Plantation includes corn, soybeans, wheat, and peanuts, are using a “cocktail mix” of winter cover comprised of tillage radishes — which can send a root as much as 60 inches into the soil —cereal rye, and rape/canola.  There is a difference between cereal rye and annual rye grass.

“Our sandier soils were subject to a lot of erosion from winter rains, and then in the spring from strong winds,” Mike says. “We could look out our shop window and see huge swirling dust clouds, reminiscent of a scene from an old western movie — the only thing missing was blowing tumbleweeds.

“We’ve planted different cover crops over the years on land that wasn’t in winter wheat for harvest, but this has been the best option we’ve tried. This is our fourth winter for the radishes and rye. Both are easy to grow — I think the rye would sprout in our shop floor — and they’re easy to kill with our normal spring burndown program.

 “We’ve dug some radishes with roots that go as much as five feet deep. This helps to loosen the soil for the root development of following crops, provides improved water dispersion to crop roots, promotes drainage, and helps add organic matter.”

Mike says there are data indicating that the radishes help sequester residual nutrients and keep them from leaching out of the soil.

“There is also quite a bit of research showing yield improvement to following crops, and although we haven’t quantified it, we do feel there has been a yield benefit."

Mikey says the cover crops are killed with their normal burndown program of Valor, 2,4-D and Touchdown.

“We’ll start our burndown around March 1. The above-ground foliage on the radishes is killed and decomposes on the soil surface. The radish tuber, above- and below-ground, just rots into a slimy, smelly mess. It stinks to high heaven — a sulfury, rotten eggs smell.

In the more northern U.S., freezing winter temperatures will usually kill the radishes prior to spring planting time, Mikey says.

“Much of the information we’ve seen indicates that three consecutive nights of temps in the teens will kill them, but we’ve not seen that with the relatively mild winters we’ve had here. If a cold snap comes along, it will shut down growth, but then they just start back up again when the weather warms.

“After all the cover is killed, we seed our crops into the plant residue, which helps protect young crop seedlings from damage that can be caused by blowing sand. Ours is basically a minimum-till operation; we try to do as little tillage as possible, mostly strip-till subsoiling.”

About half their acreage is seeded to the cover crops, Mikey says. They currently have 2,000 acres in winter wheat for harvest, which will be double-cropped to soybeans. The rest of their land is heavier soils that aren’t so subject to erosion/spring blowing.

“If we’re planting just radishes, we’ll broadcast 8 pounds. per acre,” Mikey says. “If we’re using a radish/rye blend, it’s 3 pounds of radish seed and 15 pounds of cereal rye. We started planting them in August, right behind the corn combine. Early seeding is important for the best growth.”

This year, they’re also growing a couple hundred acres of Dwarf Essex rape/canola.

“It’s our first time to grow it,” Mikey says, “and we didn’t really know what to expect from it, but it has grown well. It may not have the really deep root of the radishes, but it provides good soil cover and there is a lot of vegetation, which should help with organic matter.”

Initially, Mike says, “We were using a custom applicator and blending the cover crop seed with fertilizer. But, we were able to eliminate the applicator cost by adapting a Humdinger tool for seeding. We mounted a Gandy air seeder on the Humdinger machine, and this does an excellent job of broadcasting the seed. We’ve been very pleased with the results, and it has saved money over the custom application.”