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Cover crops are a boon to soil health

The benefits to cover crops this year would include improved weed control, decreased erosion and a reduction in water evaporation, which in turn, would mean less wicking up of groundwater, salts and sodium into the groundwater, Naeem Kalwar, North Dakota State University Extension soil scientist.

A cover crop field.
This field of cover crops near Woodworth, N.D., was photographed in September 2013.
John Brose/Agweek
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MINTO, N.D. – Farmers who have prevented plant acres have an opportunity to improve soil health by seeding cover crops on them, said Naeem Kalwar, North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist.

“Based on my personal experience, if ever there was a year for planting cover crops, it’s 2022,” Kalwar told farmers at a soil health presentation during the “The Greatest Tour on Earth. The Walsh County (North Dakota) Soil Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service and NDSU Extension sponsored the soil health tour held at the community center in Minto on July 7.

The benefits to cover crops this year would include improved weed control, decreased erosion and a reduction evaporation, which, in turn, would mean less wicking up of groundwater, salts and sodium into the groundwater, Kalwar said.

In 2022, besides benefiting the soil, cover crops can be hayed or grazed, which means farmers also can make money on the prevent plant acres, he said. Among the long-term soil health benefits from cover crops are more soil microbial activity and an increase in soil organic matter, which speeds up soil water infiltration, increases water and nutrient and holding capacity and improves the seed bed, germination and root penetration, Kalwar said.

A man wearing a green shirt sits in  a chair while he watches a presentation about cover crops on a screen.
Naeem Kalwar gave farmers a presentation about the soil health benefits of cover crops at a workshop in Minto, North Dakota, on July 8, 2022.
Ann Bailey/Agweek

Farmers have the option to plant either cover crop premixes or custom mixes, and both have pros and cons, he said. For example, premixes can be purchased and then planted, but also may be more expensive than custom mixes.

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If farmers choose to plant custom mixes, they should determine the answer to a number of questions, before their purchase. Those questions include whether the field is affected by excess water-soluble or sodicity levels, if grazing, haying or baleage is an option and what the next crop after the 2022 cover crop will be, Kalwar said.

Meanwhile, before purchasing seed, farmers also should determine the maximum per acre cost for seed and for planting, whether the species overwinters and will grow in 2023 and what the plan will be for managing crop residue or plant biomass if the cover crop will not be hayed or grazed.

Once farmers know what their goals for cover crop are, they have several options of seed mixes, which are tailored to their various goals, Kalwar said.

For example, if they want their cover crops to use excess water, prevent erosion and to hay or graze the field, they can mix warm-season and cool-season crops and a legume which would be made up of sorghum, barley and field peas at certain rates, he said. For grazing, a seed mixture could be a combination of forage sorghum, forage barley and forage peas or sorghum, radish and field peas at the same seeding rates as the former.

Kalwar also shared with farmers at the soil health workshop how to make mixes for using excess water and improving soil health and for moderately saline and sodic areas.

More information about cover crops is available at : https://midwestcovercrops.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/MCCC-102-ND-recipe.pdf and at: https://www.ndsu.edu/soilhealth/searchie/ and then typing in “prevented plant.”

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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