Cover crops can provide producers a variety of benefits from nutrient cycling and soil cover to nitrogen fixation and pollinator food sources. Cover crops come in many varieties including grasses, legumes and brassicas, however; cover crops maintain a “green bridge” throughout the fall and early spring that may facilitate the movement of pest insects into above and below ground plant structures.
Seedling corn, in Louisiana, is often adversely affected by many factors including excess moisture, cold temperatures and a complex of above/below ground insect pests. The complex of underground insects includes southern corn rootworm, wireworms and white grubs, while the above ground complex includes sugarcane beetles, chinch bugs and cutworms. Most of these insects require a food source that is present in fields for them to successfully overwinter and subsequently begin reproduction when temperatures begin to warm in the spring. The inherent benefits of cover crops often include the presence of large volumes of biomass and an abundant root structure that anchors soil or penetrates a hard pan. Yet, these attributes make cover crops an ideal source for the buildup of yield limiting insects.
Insecticide seed treatments (ISTs) are neonicotinoid based insecticides that coat the outer layer of the seed offering protection from below and above ground early season insect pests. The systemic nature of ISTs make these compounds water soluble and facilitate the vascular movement of the insecticide into the plant tissue. The value of ISTs in Louisiana varies among crops and environmental conditions, most agricultural commodities will usually not benefit from ISTs when planted under optimal environmental conditions (adequate soil temperature, optimal soil moisture and low pest pressure). However, insecticide seed treatments will typically produce an economic benefit when conditions are sub-optimal including very late or early planting, reduced tillage field arrangements, double cropping systems (soybeans behind wheat), pests that are present every year and consecutive plantings (i.e., corn behind corn). In addition to the above mentioned situations, data from the LSU AgCenter’s Macon Ridge Research Station confirmed the need of an IST when corn is planted behind cover crops (Figure 1). A statistically significant increase in yield was observed in corn treated with Poncho 500 IST in Berseen Clover, Crimson Clover and Hairy Vetch while a significantly lower yield was measured in corn planted behind Tillage Radishes treated with the IST (Figure 1). No fungicide seed treatment was used in this study. The measurable difference in yield may be due to the presence of below ground insects that also produced a notable decrease in vigor (Figure 2). Unfortunately for producers, there are no rescue treatments available for below ground insect injury in corn or any other agriculturally managed crop in Louisiana. Therefore, the use of an IST can help safely and effectively control below above and below ground insect pests in corn planted behind cover crops.
Aside from the use of ISTs, there are other management practices that can be done to minimize the effects of pest insects, from cover crops, on corn. Burning down cover crops in a timely fashion (6 weeks before planting) will provide enough time for available biomass above the soil to dessicate and force any harbored insects off of the plants. Yet, this timing may not allow enough time for below ground insects to cycle out or succumb to a lack of forage. Earlier burn down timings and the use of minimum tillage may allow enough time for insects to cycle out or be physically removed or destroyed with implements. If you elect to destroy your cover crops earlier than intended, check with your local NRCS representative or LSU AgCenter county agent to ensure enough time has passed that your preplant intentions are met (ie. Nitrogen fixation, nutrient cycling, etc.).
The use of ISTs is a best management practice recommended by the LSU AgCenter and will help ensure your crop is protected from yield limiting insects. The use of ISTs is highly recommended if you choose to plant corn behind cover crops particularly Berseen Clover, Crimson Clover and Hairy Vetch. If you have any questions or concerns please contact your local LSU AgCenter extension service.