Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension Soil Health Specialist
Throughout the year, I hear from farmers about the benefits they see when using a soil health building system that includes cover crops and reduced tillage — things they are thankful for as they reflect on the hard work invested in building up their soils and re-evaluating approaches to fit their on-farm goals. I'll share a few of the things I hear:
More farmers are showing interest in and using an approach called bio strip-till, where specific cover crops are planted in individual strips after the harvest of an early season crop. Goals for using this approach typically include a combination of (1) creating a dark strip in the field with residue to simulate strip till, (2) opening up the soil for cash crop root growth, (3) to keep competitive winter annual species like cereal rye out of the cash crop planting row, and (4) residue management to keep problematic residue out of the planting strip.
The benefits of using soil health-building practices, like cover crops and reduced tillage, can often be seen during planting and at harvest when heavy equipment is in the field. The reason for this is improved trafficability. Incorporating cover crops in rotation helps: (1) manage moisture through transpiration by the plant and down into the soil along root channels and (2) increases root volume in the soil to wrap around soil particles and build aggregates.
Timing is important when it comes to using and managing cover crops — for example, termination timing, timing for interseeding and timing for seeding date post-harvest. This means cover crops should have a level of management similar to cash crops to get the most out of the investment and avoid any potential issues. Termination timing
Bringing precision to cover cropping is a sure way to fine tune the benefits, especially when it comes to accomplishing the goal of water use.
Winter annual cover crops are a natural fit for the short growing season in the Northern Plains. The two most winter-hardy species for our region are cereal rye (cool season grass) and winter camelina (cool season broadleaf).
Education about agriculture is on the minds of many who live in the Northern Plains region. From farmers who want to share their livelihood with others and provide accurate information to consumers, to urban parents who want their children to understand the origin of their food and the fuel that takes them on family vacations. Agriculture is an integral part of our lives and as a result, we look for opportunities to learn more.
Considering the whole system is required when incorporating soil health practices on-farm. Often times, there are concerns about potential issues that including something like cover crops may cause; for example, disease and pest transfer, potential to contaminate grain, soil water and temperature conditions. However, looking for additional benefits to the entire system should be considered, too. In this Soil Health Minute, I'd like to talk about the benefit of using cover crops in rotation for weed suppression.
There is nothing easy about managing salinity — it requires patience to avoid frustration and flexibility to adjust management approaches as conditions change. At North Dakota State University, we have worked with farmers on a variety of approaches depending on the level of salinity including (1) reducing tillage, (2) improving drainage, (3) using more salt tolerant cash crops, (4) including a cover crop in rotation, (5) seeding a full season cover crop, (6) establishing perennial species and (7) managing weeds like a cover crop.
When selecting cover crops, it is important to (1) identify a goal, and (2) think about the current and next crop in rotation. This determines what you put in the mix, seeding rates and timing of seeding. Basing mixes around goals, keeping it simple and adding as you get more experience is a good path to follow. The decision on what grass to include in the cover crop mix is important because it influences the residue you plant into in the spring. Here are some tips on grasses that can be included based on what we've been learning and seeing.