Advantages and Challenges of Cover Crop "Cocktail Mixes"

No-Till Farmer hosted a webinar on July 23 entitled "Selecting a Cover-Crop Mix To Achieve The Desired Results." The featured presenter was Jamie Scott, a 10+ year veteran of no-till and cover cropping. 

After reviewing some basic cover crops and cover crop combinations, the discussion turned toward "cocktail mixes." A cocktail mix is a number of different species mixed together in order to take advantage of each species' unique offering to the farmer's soil. Below is a brief overview of this portion of the webinar followed by a few questions for consideration. 

Cocktail Mix Advantage

 This is a 3-way "cocktail" mix. Many cocktail mixes have more than 15 species combined. 

This is a 3-way "cocktail" mix. Many cocktail mixes have more than 15 species combined. 

The primary advantage of a cocktail mix is biodiversity - the benefit that the soil receives from multiple species. Cocktail mixes will often contain 15 or more different species, including but not limited to the species listed below:

  • grass plants: for building organic matter, sequestering nutrients, and preventing erosion
  • legumes: for nitrogen production - common legumes planted for cover crops are peas, vetch, and clovers (crimson, red, and sweet)
  • brassicas: for scavenging nutrients, providing a home for earthworms, excellent cover in the field

A secondary benefit of the continuous use of cocktail mixes may be the opportunity to lower nutrient costs. With the ability of these crops to produce N, as well as hold on to N and other nutrients, this may become a possibility for some producers. 

Cocktail Mix Challenges

Below is a list of some of the challenges producers will face if they plan to utilize a cocktail mix:

  • must be planted after a specialty crop or wheat - this will allow adequate time for growth and maximum benefit - not great if you're simply in a corn and soybean rotation
  • a lot of planning ahead is required in order to make sure you have all the components needed for the mix you intend to plant - don't forget inoculants 
  • mixing the seed can be a problem - it's hard to mix 10 or 15 seeds together with precision, ensuring an even stand of plants
  • weeds must be controlled before planting the cocktail mix
  • correct planting depth with multiple species - Jamie uses a John Deere 750 drill, at notch 16 or 17, set to a depth of 3/4" - 1" - with the goal of 40 seeds per square foot
  • sticker shock - it's not uncommon for these mixes to cost more than $50.00/acre for just the seed 

Further Questions for Consideration

  • What is the actual cost per acre, when considering seed, fuel, labor, etc.?
  • Is this an affordable practice, with appropriate ROI, with current corn prices?