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Cover crops becoming more popular

With our short growing season, we have several options for cover crops in Western Canada. Kevin Elmy’s been trying some new ones on his farm

Across the United States, cover crops have been increasing in popularity. Between drought, delayed seeding, the high cost of putting the crop in, long growing season, high levels of inputs and leaching concerns, cover crops are taking hold.

Most farmers planting cover crops are finding fewer nutrients in water run off, less erosion, less input required for the next crop and cooler soils during the growing season.

With the amount of unseeded acres across the Prairies, some farmers tried cover crops this year for the first time. Instead of letting the fields sit for up to three years without any production, some were willing to try cover crops.

Steep learning curve

In Western Canada, since we are just starting with the cover crop strategy, there is still a fair amount to learn — which species to use and when, relay cropping, grazing, greenfeed, seeding into the cover crop and taking out the cover crop are some questions that come up. Because of our short growing season, we do not have a lot of options that will grow fast enough to produce enough benefit to make it worthwhile.

One way to find out what works it so do trials. We seeded seed of different species — some in the garden, and others in a couple of blends that we seeded in the field.

I was unsure about RootMax Annual Ryegrass and Crimson Clover. I didn’t even know what Phacelia was, never mind how it would fit into a cover crop blend.

It is very interesting to replicate something someone else has done elsewhere. In our case, we seeded out six-foot (two-metre) strips in our garden to see what the different species looked like and how they performed.

Most varieties looked weak or maybe ordinary. Put them in a blend, and they looked better than expected.

Trevor Lennox and Shannon Chant with Saskatchewan Agriculture at Swift Current, Sask., did some trials and found the same thing. In pure stands, most species looked ordinary or weak. In a blend, they exhibited stronger growth.

Spring of 2012

This spring, because we were wet, again, and seeding was delayed, we decided to reduce our canola acres as it was getting to the end of May. There were fields we could not get on and seeding canola in June, plus getting them off in time to get winter cereals in, just does not happen.

It continued to rain through June. By the first part of July, we were able to get into the fields to get the ground prepared for seeding. There were ruts in the field, saturated pieces that needed to be aerated, and straw to be managed. We seeded a mixture of 10 pounds of crown millet (white proso millet) with one pound of Tillage Radish between July 9 and July 13 with our Bourgault airseeder, with no seed placed fertilizer.

Two of the fields we seeded had just come through two years of soybeans with lots of volunteer canola. The other field had been seeded with fridge forage winter triticale. We were concerned about the nitrogen levels on the triticale stubble, but being as wet as it was we just wanted to use up soil moisture. Soybean ground had adequate levels of nitrogen for the millet.

The last summer rain we received came on July 19. The other field we seeded to cover crop is where we planned on seeding corn. With the excessive spring moisture, we only seeded five acres of the 40, so we seeded some strips into the 35 acres on July 13, using three Cover Crop Solutions blends, and one that we put together.

The three Cover Crop Solutions blends we tried were: Indy (includes Tillage Radish, RootMax Annual Rye, and CCS Crimson Clover); Daytona (includes Tillage Radish and CCS Crimson Clover); and Bristol (includes Tillage Radish, RootMax and Annual Rye). Our own blend included Tillage Radish, RootMax Annual Rye, CCS Crimson Clover, natto soybeans, and fridge forage winter triticale. Our goal was to seed fridge forage winter triticale that fall in most of the fields, and graze the different blends on the corn field.

The results

Germination was good on all the fields. It may have been more stressful if the rains continued, but the dry weather worked in our favour. Ground cover occurred quickly.

The seeding rate of the Daytona blend was a bit low as it never covered the ground as nicely, or the mix just needs some grass in it to bulk it up.

The green feed mix of crown millet and Tillage Radish was cut on August 27 and baled soon after. We Averaged 1-1/2 bales per acre with 1,200 pound bales. Having Tillage Radish in the mix bumped up the protein from 8.3 to nine per cent, calcium from 0.19 to 0.32 per cent and relative feed value from 96 to 102. On its own, Tillage Radish is actually too rich to feed, with protein over 25 per cent and a relative feed value over 275. After the crown millet/Tillage Radish blend was baled, the crown millet died, where the Tillage Radish regrew.

When the fridge forage winter triticale was seeded into the stubble, establishment was much improved over seeding into canola stubble. The soil was mellower and had better moisture than canola stubble. The cover crop strips in the corn field has not been grazed at the present time, but we were able to evaluate growth, seeding rates, and species adaptation.

In our garden plots, it appears that Phacelia, hybrid Brassica, kale, as well as the Tillage Radish, RootMax Annual Ryegrass, CCS Crimson Clover, CCS hairy vetch, Daytona, Indy and Bristol blends look like they have a fit in Western Canada.

Crown and red proso millets, sunflowers, oat, barley, fall rye, winter triticale, soybeans, fenugreek, Egyptian or Burseem clover, and forage rapeseed have been proven to work well.

Next year

The fun thing with cover crops is that there are always more potential species to use. Next year we are going to do more experiments with species and blends to see what works.

Definitely cover crops are going to be included in our rotation. This will reduce our rotation risk, spread out our workload, help conserve moisture and improve our soils. Plus we can also get our winter cereals seeded on time, into better stubble with better moisture. †

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