Farmer Blake Vince says he’s seen both benefits and challenges as he’s made cover crops part of his operation near London, Ont.
At November’s Farm Forum Event virtual conference, he appeared by way of a pre-recorded presentation done weeks earlier at his no-till farm.
Standing in the middle of a cover crop that was planted in August following a winter wheat crop, Vince detailed the system he’s developed for his operation.
He typically grows grain corn, followed by two years of soybeans and then a year of winter wheat. He follows that with a big cover crop blend. He estimated that there were 18 species in the cover crop. Many of those crops are legumes like hairy vetch, spring peas and fava beans.
“Fava beans not only have a really nice taproot to break up different compaction layers but they have a lot of nice nodules for fixing nitrogen,” said Vince.
They also have the benefit of leaving a black residue on the surface when they die, that helps warm the soil in the spring. He also plants grass species like oats, volunteer wheat, sorghum, millet, and discard corn seed.
“Oats and barley take a lot of frost until they die and that’s great because we’re just going to keep driving all of that sugar essentially to the soil,” he said. And that’s really the point.
“It’s taking photosynthesis, driving it to the soil and letting the roots from those plants pump out liquid carbon. That sugar is going to feed all the microbial community in the soil.”
Vince’s reasons for choosing no-till farming with a focus on cover crops and environmental sustainability is threefold. Growing alarm over the health of Lake Erie (where water on his farm eventually drains) was a big concern for Vince, so he strives to minimize anything that might contribute to the degradation of the lake health.
“I’m trying to protect freshwater resources and not contribute negatively to that resource that everyone within society benefits from,” he said.
He also wants to give his farm a break from the monoculture of a standard crop rotation.
“This diverse cover crop is the one time in my crop rotation that I can avoid a monoculture,” Vince said. “Soils, wherever you are on the planet, were never formed with monocultures.”
He is now seeing his soils start to respond favourably when he has extreme weather events like a heavy rain.
“We’re walking on this collection of roots that go down and they break up any layers of compaction that are down there,” Vince said. “They all have all worked harmoniously together to really stimulate the soil microbial community.”
Vince’s third reason for choosing his current path is that it makes good business sense. He is able to reduce his dependency on commercial fertilizer. Reducing tillage means less wear and tear on equipment, reducing depreciation costs and fuel costs.
“So the pluses to the balance sheet automatically start to add up,” says Vince. “I don’t look at yield as far as tons per acre, or bushels per acre. I look at the bottom line; the net return per acre. We don’t take bushels to the bank. We take money to the bank.”
Of course, there are always challenges when going against the grain. Vince says that most of those challenges revolve around the fact that many of the tools in the agricultural tool kit are not made for his system. This has required Vince to come up with some creative mechanical work-arounds with things like seeders. It’s also meant he’s had to do his own evaluations to find which hybrids prefer his environment. The pesticides available will often kill off species that are important to the health of his soil ecosystem. He’s run into similar problems with the herbicides that conventional farmers rely on.
“We have to think through the process a little differently,” said Vince.
Vince was one of a number of presenters who touched on soil health issues from various angles.
The virtual Farm Forum Event was held Nov. 9 and 10.