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Cover crops are intriguing

By Mark Watson
Panhandle No-Till Educator

Cover crops have proven to be an intriguing production practice in modern agriculture. Cover crops have also proven to be equally perplexing. Let’s take a look at everything I think I know about cover crops, which is a little, and all that I don’t know which is considerable.
What has gotten me so interested in cover crops and especially cover crops grown for grazing cattle is the testimonial I’ve heard from farmer/rancher friends of mine and others I’ve listened to at meetings who have some amazing results on their farms and ranches from the production of cover crops.
Producers who have been raising cover crops and grazing them for forages are now producing outstanding yields of cash crops such as corn, wheat, and other cereal grains without any commercial fertilizer.
When I’ve visited with these producers about their yields and their use of cover crops they explain to me that the key to their success is improving their soil’s health.
When they produce these cover crops they are improving the soil organic matter, increasing the water holding capacity of their soil, and increasing the microbial diversity and populations in their soil.
This improvement in soil health has allowed them to reduce their inputs of commercial fertilizers in their cash crops making their operations more profitable.
The key to these cover crops is adding diversity into the plants we grow in our soils. This diversity includes diversifying and increasing the soil microbial community which releases more nutrients for the plants we grow as cash crops. I’ve spoken to soil microbiologists who have explained to me the complicated world of soil microbiology.
My general understanding is if your soil has the right combination and populations of soil microbes the soil is capable of supplying many nutrients to the plants.
I find this whole concept of soil health very interesting. I’m also looking at ways to adopt this concept of plant diversity into our own farming operation.
My main goal is to reduce my production inputs of commercial fertilizer to improve the profitability of our farming operation.
Improving the health of the soil we work with is also a goal.
Twenty years ago we started down this path with the adoption of no-till crop production practices on our farm. We have also added legumes to our cropping rotation which has added diversity to our production system.
This past year we planted a cover crop for grazing cattle after we harvested our irrigated winter wheat. We have a couple of on farm experiments on our dry land corn crop as well as our irrigated corn crop which we planted into our cover crop that was grazed during the winter.
Let’s start out by taking a look at the irrigated corn crop we are growing following the cover crop for grazing. I really like the idea of growing the cover crop following our winter wheat harvest. By growing the cover crops we have a living root in the soil growing as opposed to a long fallow period prior to planting corn the following spring.
This time period is ideal for adding diversity to our cropping system as well as producing forage for cattle. The only downside to this production practice is the fact we had to pump five inches of irrigation water on the cover crops to produce them.
The cover crops we planted were 80 lbs. of field peas/acre, 2 lbs. of sunflower/acre, 5 lbs. of flax/acre, and 2 lbs. of nitro radish/acre. Our seed costs were $8.00 per acre for everything but the field peas which we grew ourselves. Adding in the value of the field peas total seed costs were approximately $20 per acre.
The cattle really utilized the cover crop and we grazed approximately 300 head of cows for a month on this cover crop mix. We were very careful not to overgraze and we left 50 percent of the residues to maintain good soil cover. These residues will reduce the soil moisture evaporation and help feed the soil microorganisms.
Next week we’ll look at our farm experiment on this field including biomass sampling of the cover crop, soil testing, soil microbe testing, and the Haney test for nutrient release from these soil microbes.