Kevin Elmy Suggests Four Ways Grain Farmers Can Ease Into New Farming Practices
A question that I hear a lot is, “How do cover crops fit into a grain operation?” Lots of grain farmers have no desire to get into the livestock business and no interest in producing hay. But many have some soil issues that need to be addressed. This can be done by buying more iron or ramping up chemical inputs. Or, you can try to tackle the problems with some biology.
Cover crop options are available for most situations. The first thing to do is identify what issues you’re trying to address. Inadvertently, other issues may also be handled based on the cover crop species you throw in the mix.
Consider the problem you want to modify — is it a symptom or a cause? A symptom is produced from a cause; a cause is the actual root of the problem. Many times, especially medically, symptoms are dealt with, but the root of the problem is not always identified right away. The problem is not going to go away until the root cause is addressed.
An example is poor infiltration. Is the poor infiltration in your field due to compaction, poor aggregation, salinity, calcium-magnesium imbalance, low organic matter, a lack of plant diversity, a high water table or poor rotation? Is it simpler to get earth movers in to drain the soil? Otherwise, dealing with each of the potential causes of the poor infiltration will actually solve the issue instead of putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Some of the answers can address more than one of the issues.
Once you’ve identified the issue you can develop strategies. You can look at relay cropping, intercropping, a post-harvest cover crop or a full-season cover crop. Do you want to have it winter kill or let it overwinter and terminate it in the spring? Doing something positive is better than nothing.
One of your overlaying goals should be to increase organic matter. You can achieve this by keeping plants growing through the growing season from spring thaw to freeze up, reducing tillage, creating more plant diversity and increasing microbial activity in the soil. In reality, they are all connected.