Cover crops breaking out of livestock niche

Benefits of cover crops shown to accrue to grain portion of mixed operations, causing some without livestock to consider them

A pea/oat/tillage radish cover crop seeded in early August, pictured on October 17.

Cover crops could be a game changer for Manitoba, and not just for mixed crop and livestock operations.

Typically those farms have been the earliest adopters of this new technique, said Michael Thiele, who works with the province’s grazing clubs through a Ducks Unlimited program.

“These guys growing cover crops are finding that using and grazing cover crops is improving the soil and soil biology,” Thiele said.

That can pay off on the grain side.

“They’re able to back off on their input costs like fertilizer, but without a loss of yield,” Thiele said. “That’s a recipe for making a profit.”

The crops also help farms with livestock diversify their available feedstock and help make livestock feeding work more efficiently year round.

“Cover crops can be a useful tool in thinking out the full year-round programs for how you feed livestock,” he said. “They can be used for silage, hay, summer grazing, fall grazing, stockpile grazing. It’s a nice flexible tool.”

But it’s a tool that’s just beginning to see adoption in Manitoba. Uptake has been slow, mainly due to the lack of immediate incentives and the difficulty of marketing forages for growers without livestock. However, Thiele says cover cropping has been so effective for farmers with mixed crop-livestock operations that they ultimately see a return on their investment.

Thiele, also Intermountain Conservation District’s manager, said the district is adding a cover-cropping program for local farmers to get their feet wet with minimal risk.

The district is home to land that is often flooded out — over the last few years, many acres haven’t been seeded at all — and cover cropping with legumes can help use up excess moisture while enriching soil health for the following year’s crop.

Small incentives for the Intermountain project are being offered by Ducks Unlimited, which also sponsors the South West Grazing Club.

Research based

Cover crop projects are backed by plenty of research, according to Joanne Thiessen Martens, a technician at the University of Manitoba’s department of plant science. She said interest in various types of cover cropping is growing across North America, so data about the efficacy of cover crops is becoming more readily available.

The use of legume forages like alfalfa or forage pea in “shoulder seasons” immediately before and right after the cropping season results in a surprising amount of biomass, she said.

“You might have 1,000 kg of biomass produced between August and October,” she said. “With a legume fixing nitrogen, that’s 25 kilograms per hectare of nitrogen, which has a direct agronomic and economic value to the farmer in the next year.”

Other benefits include keeping the ground covered in the spring and fall, providing living roots for soil biology to feed on throughout the growing season, and improved soil structure.

At the university Thiessen Martens works with plant science researchers to develop approaches to cover cropping that will ultimately improve growers’ bottom lines while also improving soil health.

They’ve studied various methods of cover cropping, including adding legumes into the period of time between harvest and freeze-up in continuous grain production systems.

Nitrogen-fixing, drought-tolerant legumes that fit in the latter half of the season include Indian Head lentils, forage pea and chickling vetch.

Thiessen Martens said interested growers should look at their rotations to find periods where nothing is growing, such as after winter wheat or canola harvest. Next, they should evaluate what their goals are in terms of using those “windows of opportunity,” whether that be preventing soil erosion by physically covering the ground, adding living plants to enhance soil biology, gaining nitrogen fixation, or providing forage for grazing livestock.

After this, they are equipped to select cover crop mixes that can help them meet those specific goals.

“The benefits are certainly there, but for those who are feeling like that would be a stretch for them to pay for that seed and do those extra passes, using cover crops for grazing livestock does seem to be an economically viable option,” she said.

South of the border

Cover cropping has taken off faster south of the border in North Dakota and Minnesota, in part due to incentives through local conservation security programs.

John Kapphahn, a certified seed grower on 1,600 acres near Elbow Lake, Minnesota, started using cover crops three years ago in an effort to enhance soil protection, increase fertility and reduce farming costs. These days he uses cover crops on 300 to 400 acres every season.

“I’ve seen a return on that investment,” he said. “Some of it’s financial, some of it is in progress, but we’re seeing reduced tillage expenses, better water infiltration into the soil, fewer weed issues and better soil fertility.”

In Kapphahn’s region, many sugar beet growers cover crop with winter rye to reduce wind erosion in the spring.

The practice is increasingly common in North Dakota and Minnesota with no-till soybean growers, he says. Some growers are able to get two tonnes of hay from cover cropping prior to planting no-till soybeans; the practice has a side benefit of reducing pest pressure through the year.

“The more that I do this, the more I think we’ve been missing some opportunities because we’re creatures of habit,” he said. “Farming is dimes and nickels, it ain’t dollars anymore. You’ve got to save dimes and nickels.”

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