Cover crops may buffer bad spring in 2020

This fall had little window for fall-seeded cover crops, but those who already have cover crops in the ground say it’s now their best insurance against a wet spring

Joe Gardiner of Clearwater has an insurance policy against a wet spring next year — and it has nothing to do with MASC.

Gardiner is one of a growing number of Manitoba farmers to embrace cover crops, having started the practice several years ago in an effort to increase fall grazing. This year, he jumped all in on regenerative agriculture with a mix of intercropping, relay cropping and livestock-integrated full-season cover crops.

It was a difficult year to make that switch, he acknowledged, looking at 2019’s dry conditions followed by an extraordinarily wet fall. At the same time, he said, some of those cover crops are expected to overwinter, and that early-season regrowth may give him the edge he needs to get on the field.

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“We’ve got a pile of moisture right now and I’ve got a living root in every single acre, so next spring, if we’re in a flood scenario, we’ve got a living root to create soil structure, to use moisture,” he said. “Our best chance to get on the land next year is because we have these living plants growing.”

At the same time, he noted, having a winter cereal in the mix creates a buffer should the spring be so wet that he can’t get on the field before MASC seeding deadlines. Even if he can’t get on the field to terminate his cover and plant a different cash crop, he said, at least he might get a crop out of the winter cereal.

Producers across the board are cursing 2019’s weather, but some with overwintering cover crops hope that regrowth will give some much-needed resiliency both against a wet spring or future droughts.

Cover cropping to increase farm resiliency is nothing new. Local experts like Michael Thiele of the Ducks Unlimited grazing club or Yvonne Lawley of the University of Manitoba have said the practice keeps green cover on the ground longer in the season, thus improving soil structure and water infiltration. That increased infiltration translates to greater resiliency against both flooding and drought, both say.

“I think you have to think about how much you’re willing to allocate in terms of time and space to building that resiliency,” Lawley said. “Some people are desperate. Maybe you have that wet field that has no porosity that water can’t move on. Maybe you haven’t been able to grow a crop on that field in several years really successfully. Do you want to dedicate a full-season cover crop to that field?”

That drastic step has paid off for some farmers she has spoken to, she noted, although she added it may be less drastic if the producer has livestock, custom grazes, or cuts that cover crop for greenfeed to recapture some of that value.

Winter cereals may be a logical starting point for producers just starting out with cover crops, Lawley noted, since those crops promise either a grain harvest next year, or early weed control.

Most producers do a pre-seed herbicide pass anyway, Gardiner noted, giving a natural termination opportunity for the cover crop.

Bring on the cows

Unlike Gardiner, Scott Beaton does not have cattle to buffer his economic risk. At the same time, he says, full-season cover crops are critical for green manure and weed control on his organic farm in the RM of Rosser.

[AUDIO CLIP: above] Scott Beaton is among the relatively rare producers in the Red River Valley putting down cover crops. Beaton spoke to the Manitoba Co-operator’s Alexis Stockford on his experience with cover cropping, and how he is improving the practice on his farm.

This year, however, he has found a way to directly cash in on those cover crops. The province’s feed shortage created tall demand for custom grazing, he noted, while he wanted livestock on his land for the sake of nutrition and soil health.

Livestock integration is one of the often-cited principles of regenerative agriculture, with experts linking it to greater biomass and nutrient cycling.

Beaton set aside 30 acres for custom grazing this year, something that he says allows him to shake up the weed cycle. He hopes changing the rhythm of seeding dates and adding longer fall grazing will disrupt those weed cycles.

“It looks to me like that’s a good fit,” he said.

There is a challenge with priorities, Beaton acknowledged, since ranchers want feed for as long as possible, while he would have liked to have more cattle for a shorter period of time, the better to shake up the weed cycle.

[AUDIO CLIP: above] Sharing livestock for both extra forage and soil health is among the often suggested, but rarely realized, solutions for expanding regenerative agriculture into large scale agriculture, but Scott Beaton of Rosser, Man., gave it a shot this year by offering up his cover cropped acres for custom grazing.

Spring termination

Producers using fall cereals to dry down land or fight weeds will want to watch their timing, Lee Briese, consultant with Centrol Inc. in North Dakota, said.

Briese urged producers to consider the history of their area.

Lee Briese.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“One of the concerns for where I’m at is that we can be too dry more often than too wet and that cereal rye needs to be terminated because it takes time for that to die,” he said. “Whether you’re doing tillage or a herbicide, it takes time for it to actually die, and it will continue to use moisture. So we’re hedging our bet going a little early and terminating it when it’s still a little bit too wet to make sure that it’s dead by the time that the moisture is at about the right stage.”

Producers in Ontario have the opposite problem he noted.

This fall was less than ideal if a producer wanted to try out cover crops for the first time. Most of the province saw little moisture throughout the growing season, while a wet fall left farmers scrambling to get crop harvested, let alone get out with the seeder.

Briese said he has seen some luck with frost seeding fall rye, and that winter cereal may very well give the same early-season advantage that Gardiner hopes to see.

For the most part though, he said, “Chalk it up to, ‘the year didn’t work,’ and don’t add additional expense and frustration to it.

“A cover crop is a tool in your system and when it’s not the right time to use it, I would say don’t use it,” he added.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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