Changing the way we approach cover crops

By Micah Shearer-Kudel

Mapleton, Ontario – Sam Bradshaw, Environmental Specialist with Ontario Pork is working with Jake Kraayenbrink, an Arthur area farmer to determine if planting cover crop seeds into growing corn and wheat will improve the establishment of cover crops and protect soil from erosion and nutrient loss during winter months. Greg Stewart, OMAFRA Corn Specialist and Anne Verhallen, OMAFRA Soil Specialist are also involved in the new project.

Ontario’s late fall leaves little or no growing season to establish a cover crop post-harvest. The objective of the Ontario Pork project is to explore cover crop planting techniques into growing crops before they are harvested, so the cover crop is firmly established before winter.

This project is one of 28 Water Adaptation Management and Quality Initiative (WAMQI) projects improving water use of agricultural water resources and to improve management of nutrients.

The project consists of planting cover crops seeds (clover, alfalfa, rye) into growing crops (wheat and corn). The project compares three different seeding patterns using a small air-seeder mounted on a modified manure applicator. Seed is planted as manure is being applied and is broadcast, ahead of a manure tanker, behind it, or directly into the manure application trench. The project will determine the success of these methods in establishing a cover crop. It is expected that by combining cover crop planting with nutrient application to the host crop, that cover crop adoption may become more widespread in corn production as a practical strategy to control erosion and build soil structure.

Cover crops protect soil from winter erosion by wind and water and reduce the potential for runoff of nutrients such as phosphorous. Erosion and nutrient runoff cost farmers money, and farmers are continually working to reduce the potential for these issues to occur.

“We are trying to establish three crops in wheat and four in corn‎ – clover, crimson, red clover, alfalfa, plus rye in corn. We believe planting them with manure will help get them established,” explains Sam Bradshaw. Sam adds, “Cover crops historically have been difficult to establish. We are trying to get them started earlier in the season by planting them in living crops along with manure.” More cover crops on the soil surface will reduce the potential for runoff events to carry nutrients from the field and for the soil to be eroded by water and wind. The approach is unique, but if successful, it may change the way farmers look at cover crops.

The technology available to farmers allows them to do things that previous generations were unable to do. “We are using two pieces of equipment, a German designed disk applicator in wheat and a Nuhn injector in corn” Sam explains of the technology used for the project. Kraayenbrink has been on the forefront of emerging manure application and soil compaction reduction technologies and hopes that the practical use of cover crops will assist him with his objectives of improved soil health and fertility.

WAMQI is administered by Farm & Food Care with funding provided under Growing Forward 2.

For more information on any of the 28 WAMQI projects visit: www.farmfoodcare.org and click on the Environment button.

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