Joe Gardiner of Clearwater has spent a lot of effort getting ahead of the curve on cover crops.
His cover mixes can include up to 15 species in a season-long cover. He does relay cropping. He picks his seed to include a range of cool- and warm-season plants, legumes, forbs, broadleafs and grasses. He thinks about the rooting profile, the soil biology, how those plants will grow compared to any cash crop he has in the field, seeding and terminations windows, herbicide compatibility across species groups. He picks according to soil type and what soil benefits he wants to see.
If all of that seems complicated, you’re not alone.
For a producer interested in cover crops, but unsure of the recipe for success, the next call might reasonably be to a seed dealer with a cover crop mix already on the shelf.
It’s a theme he’s heard before, Gardiner noted, one that he says is partly because the resource community among early adopters of cover crops in Manitoba is still developing.
It’s an attractive option because pre-made mixes make species selection easy during a time when seed choice can take up a daylong seminar, with content to spare.
Experts like Lee Briese of Centrol Inc. in North Dakota say most cover cropping mistakes are linked in some way to species selection, and the wrong plant, seeded at the wrong time or with the wrong cash crop can turn a successful initiative into a costly mistake.
Given the possible complexity, it may seem reasonable to pursue a “plug and play” approach to cover crops. At the same time, Gardiner worries, those mixes are often expensive, and may actually hinder wider adoption.
Some of those mixes may still not be suited for a farmer’s soil type, he argued. Bigger than that, however, Gardiner worries that the cost of those mixes gives less incentive for a producer to buy in, and lots of incentive for a producer to abandon cover crops if that first experiment fails.
“I get it, (the seed companies) are a business. They have to make money,” he said. “Generally, for somebody just starting out, I know they want to do it correctly with one of these mixes, but my fear is they spend the money on the mix. Then we don’t get rain; or it’s cool and wet; maybe we don’t get the sunlight, and they’ve now made a significant enough investment that they want to see results. There’s not that there’s anything wrong with the seed. It’s that the conditions weren’t there. You were never going to get the biomass, and then you have a sour taste in your mouth.”
A ‘jumping-off point’
A prepared mix may give easy access to expert consultants hired by the company, some of whom are leading voices in cover crops development in Canada.
Kevin Elmy is one such expert. Elmy is the manager of Cover Crops Canada and an often-turned-to resource for producers adapting cover crops to Manitoba. He is also a consultant with Imperial Seed.
Elmy has designed a catalogue of mixes for the seed company, ranging from forage blends meant to balance nutrition, add more sugars in fall grazing or maximize biomass, to agronomically focused cover crops to fight salinity, bust compaction, fix nitrogen.
Elmy acknowledged the cost barrier. At the same time, he noted, those mixes are designed specifically for Manitoba fields and Manitoba rotations. They are also easily adjusted according to client needs, he added.
“With these pre-made mixes, it’s a starting point so that if you say, ‘Hey, I really like the Extend, but let’s take the sorghum out. Let’s put in something else,’ or, ‘I have my own oats,’ it’s a starting point to have an idea,” he said. (TG Extend is among the mixes Elmy has designed. The eight-species blend is marketed for growth potential in a full-season cover crop.)
A farmer saving inputs with a high-value cash crop may easily justify a more expensive, pre-made mix, he noted, while a low-value crop may give less incentive. Producers might also value a cover crop that allows them earlier field access by using up excess water and providing a supporting root system in spring, he said.
“It isn’t the cost, per se; it’s what are the benefits? What are your goals? What are you trying to do? That’s the important thing,” he said.
Producers can significantly lower cost if they flesh out a purchased mix with their own seed, he noted.
That lines up with Gardiner’s philosophy. Most of his cover crop seed is now farm sourced, he noted.
Elmy and the company have also put out a downloadable resource to help the producer navigate the cover crop design. The guide lists possible cover crop species, along with recommended seeding rates and dates, competition with other crops and suitability for uses like grazing, stockpiled forage and silage.
Lots of room
Yvonne Lawley of the University of Manitoba, meanwhile, thinks the correct balance has a lot to do with goals.
Lawley has previously typically urged producers to start their cover crop plan with their end goal in mind, and to build seed timing, species selection and termination around that goal. The topic was both the subject of her talk during November’s Getting the Most of Every Acre event in Brandon.
“I think there’s a space for everything, right? I think when somebody is starting out with cover crops, my recommendation is, it depends on who you are. I think you’ve got to keep it simple,” she said.
In some cases, she noted, “simple” could mean the ease of a pre-made mix, but also fewer acres to mitigate cost. In other cases, “simple” might mean looking for seed close to home.
When are you seeding?
The seeding window may also impact the fit of a pre-made mix, both producers and experts say.
“I’ve got no problem with a $50 mix in July, because probably what’s going to happen is you’re going to get adequate sunlight and we’re going to get moisture, and if you have the correct mix and it costs $50 an acre, you’re definitely going to get $50 an acre value back,” Gardiner said.
The same cannot be said about a fall-seeded cover crop, he added.
A fall-seeded cover will have little time to grow, making it ill suited for a complex and expensive mix, Elmy agreed. A producer using the same mix for a full-season green manure, however, might be more than happy with the return on their investment. Elmy usually advises fall-seeded covers with one or two species to minimize that risk.
End goals, however, will also impact that decision, he noted.
“Once again, is the goal, first frost and it’s all going to die, or do you want it to go right up until the snow flies, or do you want it to overwinter?” he said.
In some cases, the goal may be spring regrowth to push back a herbicide-resistant weed.
During the Getting the Most of Every Acre event in Brandon earlier this winter, North Dakota crop consultant Lee Briese highlighted fall rye as a weapon against herbicide-resistant kochia.
Most first experiences with cover crops are a fall-seeded cover, Gardiner noted, since post-harvest is often the most convenient window for seeding.
“That’s where everyone, without a doubt, starts. The sad part about it is that’s your greatest chance of failure,” he said.
Gardiner suggested that producers start cover crops even just with fall rye, since most producers will do a spring burn-off to cut off weeds anyway, and the cover will be cheap if it fails.