The first step to success using cover crops is defining the problem you need to fix.
Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and cover crop advocate, told an April 6 Ducks Unlimited grazing club meeting in Lenore that too often farmers plant before they truly have a strategy.
“The first thing you need to do is to ask yourself, ‘what is my resource concern?’” said Brown.
“Cover crops are all the rage in the States right now. The problem is, that we get a lot of producers who just go plant something. Well, even though it is a good thing that they are planting something, to get the true benefits you need to ask yourself, what is my resource concern, what am I trying to do?”
Brown has made a name for himself throughout North America for the success he has achieved with cover crops on his own farm near Bismarck, North Dakota.
“We have 5,000 acres. Two thousand acres of cropland, 2,000 acres of true native range that have never been tilled and then there are another 1,000 acres that were cropland at one point, but have been seeded back to perennial forages,” said Brown.
Brown actively experiments with diverse cropping strategies, which he says has improved his mineral and water cycles and the health of the soil.
Planting your first
Brown said there can be a number of issues producers address with cover crops.
“Are you trying to improve infiltration, increase organic matter, cycle nutrients, do you need more residue on the surface?” he said.
Once you have determined your goals, you can begin to figure out your cover crop mix.
Start out with the basics such as the length of your growing season, soil type and average precipitation. Narrow down your species and then look at the remaining options and which species will best support your goals.
“Plant a different crop on each field according to the resource concerns,” Brown said. “In order to have healthy, productive soils we need to figure out what the soil needs and plant what is necessary to heal that particular piece of land.”
From there, nail down a species combination and according to Brown, don’t be afraid to plant a number of different species; the more diverse the better.
“Diversity is king,” he said. “When you have multiple plant species in the ground working together, they feed off one another and feed the microbes in the soil and the whole system gets going.
“We actually planted over 70 different cover crop species this past season. We planted a 19-species mix into one field. Thirty-six pounds an acre and it cost me (US)$34 an acre to do, but in one year I am feeding that soil 19 different root exudates and am jump-starting the soil biology.”
When selecting species, also consider the size and shape of the plant.
“Our whole profit system as farmers revolves around photosynthesis,” said Brown. “The more sunlight we can capture the more growth we’re going to get, both above and below the surface. Consider the plant leaf size, shape and how the species will align together.”
Once you have plants in the field, Brown warns producers to be patient as it can take up to five years to see the true benefits of a diverse cropping system.
“Over time our soils have become degraded and it is important to understand that it will take some time to get all these water, mineral cycles working again. You won’t see instant results but the results you get in the long run will be worth it.”
According to Brown, producers should expect to see a decreased yield in the first few years but should begin to see other benefits, which can include reduced salinity, better water absorption, reduced compaction, reduced erosion and reduced dependence on chemical products.
Brown recommended looking at Green cover Seeds website and its SmartMix calculator at greencoverseed.com/smartmix.
Green cover Seeds is an american website so Canadian users should expect some differences, but the website allows you to enter all your field considerations and then recommends the best species matches, seeding rate and estimates seed cost per acre.
For more insight into cover crops, Brown has a number of YouTube videos with more explanation as well as a Ted Talk video.