Pushing the Cover Crop Envelope


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Pushing the Cover Crop Envelope

  1. 1. INFORMATION PROVIDED BY A GRANT FROM THE HOWARD G. BUFFETT FOUNDATION PUSHING THE COVER CROP ENVELOPE By Tanner Ehmke L iving on the leading edge of technology isn’t always easy business. But if you listen to Roger Brining of Great Bend talk about innovation in farming, you’ll find it’s about more than business. It’s a passion for the soil and environment. The investments in his subsurface drip irrigation system and the two wind turbines that power the farm serve as just a couple of examples of the lengths Brining will go to achieve new levels of conservation, which, in turn, bring value back to the farm. “I want my great-great-grandchildren to have a farm to come back to if they want,” says Brining, himself a fourth-generation farmer who farms with his wife, Erika, and their three children. “Water, energy and soil conservation are all very important, and I want to make sure that we are being good stewards of God’s creation.” That passion for stewardship has Brining constantly scanning the horizon for new and better ways to improve the efficiency and decrease the resource demands of his 3,500-acre farm, consisting of no-tilled wheat, corn, milo, soybeans and alfalfa. His latest foray into conservation has been into the realm of cover crops. “Basically, I see in cover crops several goals,” Brining explains. “Prevent both wind and water erosion, capture nutrients remaining in the soil from the previous crop, fix nutrients and nitrogen, and add organic matter, which, of course, helps for water-holding capacity and prevents leaching of nutrients.” A HEALTHY SEEDBED The crops also benefit from better seedbeds for planting, Brining says, which he credits to boosting his corn yield last year. On a quarter section of ground irrigated by a center pivot, Brining planted triticale in October 2009 for his winter annual cover crop behind alfalfa. He then chemically terminated the triticale in the spring and no-tilled corn into the thick stubble. “Agronomically, that’s not necessarily what you want to put ahead of corn, but we wanted to have some cover for the winter and that fibrous root system to create a better seedbed for planting the corn back into,” Brining says. “It worked just fantastic. It was the best field we had.” That field produced a corn yield of 245 bushels per acre, Brining recalls; his next best field was just more than 200. While Brining attributes much of that yield boost to the alfalfa that returned nitrogen to the soil over the previous five years, he thinks the triticale played a major role in prepping the seedbed heading into spring planting. The uniformity of the stand and the strong emergence, he believes, were due in part to timely planting. “I really feel that establishing a stand at the time that we planted — we planted that field fairly early — would not have been possible without the cover crop,” adds Brining. “I don’t know how much direct yield we gained from the cover crop, except that it let us get it in more timely, and we had almost perfect seed spacing. We just had no skips or doubles.” AN ALTERNATIVE NUTRIENT SOURCE COVER CROP ADVOCATE: Roger Brining sees a range of benefits by incorporating cover crops into his operation. And they’ve been yield boosters, too. Realizing the contribution alfalfa made to the corn’s success, Brining is also considering bringing a shorter alfalfa rotation into play ahead of corn to return more nitrogen back to the soil. The yield boost that results on the corn, he figures, will pay for putting in the alfalfa. “An alfalfa establishment is my only hesitation for starting it,” Brining says. “But if it pays for it in the back end with the benefit to the corn, then alfalfa looks very good financially.” Exotic cover crop cocktails consisting of radishes, canola, rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas have also made their way into the Brining farm. Brining’s ultimate goal for his long-season winter cover crops is to include 12 or more species, up from the five species in the current mix. To accommodate the introduction of cover crops into his rotation, Brining is backing off his normal practice of double cropping cash crops, such as planting short-season soybeans into wheat stubble. “Cover cropping in our case is something we will move to in the next step to developing our soils from double-cropped cash crops.
  2. 2. ENERGY PRODUCER: Brining has invested in two windmills that power his farm, allowing him to capture an abundant Kansas resource: wind. UNLIKELY DUO: RADISHES AND WHEAT We’ll put the cover crop in there with the intention of raising one bigger cash crop instead of the two smaller ones,” he explains. In the past, he says, double cropping was a sort of stopgap for the farm that worked quickly and cost-effectively after switching to no-till. But Brining is quick to note that double cropping has its limits and that the soil can develop only so far under a double-cropping system. With cover cropping, he thinks he can take his soil performance to the next level where double cropping doesn’t. THE SUBZERO temperatures that ravaged the Plains this winter left more than a few wheat farmers wondering if they’d have anything left to make it to harvest this summer. But Roger Brining, a no-till farmer near Great Bend who is experimenting with cover crops, found something peculiar. After three different days of temperatures falling to around minus 17 degrees F with 30-mph winds and no snow cover, the fields thick with cover crops showed amazing resiliency, instead of dying from the extreme conditions. “Having the extra plants there helped, it appears, on the winter survivability,” he says of his cover crop mix that included rye, radishes, peas and oats. “I haven’t found a dead plant yet. I think they provide protection for each other.” Brining tried a similar method of interseeding radishes with his wheat on a small portion of a field, and he is hoping his wheat there also survived. Next fall, he intends to plant radishes with his entire wheat crop. But preventing winterkill isn’t the only benefit Brining is hoping to see from interseeding radishes with his wheat. The radish’s taproot can push down 12 inches, or as much as 18 inches, through the soil, which might help solve issues with soil compaction and water infiltration. John Holman, cropping systems agronomist at the Kansas State University Southwest Research-Extension Center in Garden City, has studied cover crops for the past five years and is optimistic about the benefits that tubers from crops like Daikon radish may bring to cash crops. Some farmers and ranchers interseed turnips or radishes, both of which produce a tuber, with wheat or triticale for cattle grazing, he says. But these tubers may also have benefits for the soil. “Radishes can produce a really large tuber that can be 3 to 4 inches in diameter and up to 18 inches long. I think that has some potential benefits,” Holman says. “The tuber can increase water infiltration and decrease soil compaction.” While the research on radish cover crops is not extensive enough to support the theory, he says, the tuber will produce a macro-pore, or “a really big hole in the ground,” which helps water infiltrate the soil and reduces runoff. Tom Clayman, co-owner with Dustin Miller of Kaufman Seed in Haven, says the seeding rate for planting radishes with wheat in the fall is typically 1 pound of radish seed per acre. The radish grows through the fall, but then freezes and dies in winter, eventually turning to mush in the spring. It’s commonly argued the tuber pulls nutrients from deep in the soil and brings them closer to the surface where they can be made available to a crop like wheat. Holman, though, says wheat is able to reach those nutrients on its own, noting that wheat’s root system will pull moisture and nutrients from 6 feet below the soil surface. If nitrate leaching is a concern on sandy soils that are well-irrigated or in a high-rainfall area, he adds, cover crops like turnips can minimize nitrogen loss. After having seen the survival of his wheat-radish mix and cover crops this year, Brining is convinced there is more to be discovered and is planning to find more via his own on-farm research. CASHING IN ON COVER CROPS To help fund the switch to cover crops from double cropping, Brining is devising plans to bring livestock back into the farm operation with the intention of mob-grazing the cover crops with cattle. Other financial benefits such as reduced chemical costs for weed control also make cover crops appealing, Brining says. Subterranean clover, a cool-season annual legume that grows close to the ground and has a shallow root system, is one such cover crop Brining believes has big potential in reducing chemical costs. In one cornfield where he interseeded subterranean clover, yield was the same as another field where he applied chemical to control weeds. “If we interseeded a cover crop in the corn to control the weeds, that would completely eliminate that herbicide treatment. We’re talking $25 per acre of herbicide,” Brining says. “And if we could pick up some nitrogen out of it to boot, I think it has the potential to become economically viable.” The quest to find the right blend of cover crops and cash crops, Brining says, is going to be a very long process considering the dearth of university research to aid farmers. To compensate for what he sees as a waning in public funds for agricultural studies, Brining has embarked on his own quest for science and collected five years of data on his farm for yield, organic matter, soil electrical conductivity and elevation, and is searching for the right software package to interpret the information. That search for solutions is not so big in terms of dollar amount, he says, but is huge in terms of time investment, making it imperative he heads down the right path the first time. And in order to feed the world’s growing population on the same number of acres, he adds, that’s going to take proper management of the soil. “We need to have 400-bushel corn on some of our top fields in this area by 2020,” Brining says. “I don’t think we’re going to get there by putting more nitrogen out. I think it’s going to take something that improves the soil quality. To me, cover crops seem like the valid place to try.” Ehmke writes from Lane County. THE HOWARD G. BUFFETT FO UNDATION www.HarvestingThePotential.org