MORRISBURG —When Morrisburg-area crop farmer Warren Schneckenburger started out with cover crops, he was trying to use them to replace having an employee in the tractor. So far it’s been working.
Sometimes you get a yield boost to boot. Worst-case scenario, they only add as much as they cost and the farm breaks even, he said. Best case scenario? Around a three bushel-per-acre boost in soybean yields.
However, only as many as 10 per cent of farmers in Eastern Ontario are using cover crops regularly, according to a recent OMAFRA survey. One of the main obstacles is skewed expectations, Schneckenburger said.
He’s been planting cover crops (mainly cereal rye) on an increasing scale since 2012. He started with 65 acres, went up to 300 the next year, 500 the year after that, and now regularly plants over 1,000 acres each year.
So how does a cover crop replace an employee? The farm at the time was moving away from doing conventional tillage to save on labour costs and also just because good employees are hard to find. They started no-tilling as much as they could, which is a tough business in Eastern Ontario, and soon started trying strip-tillage as well. Cover crops came on the radar at around the same time, and amongst their purported benefits was replicating some of the effects of tillage. “More roots, more soil life, more earthworms,” all help open up the soil and build organic matter.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out quite that way. And when cover crops get featured in presentations, producers often get a hard sell. “You get those conference presentations selling you on it as the best thing since sliced bread, saying literally every aspect of your operation will be better. So you go in assuming 10 per cent of that’s true.”
Farmers being reluctant to try something new probably plays a big factor in cover crop adoption or lack thereof, he added. “You’ve been successful your whole life doing one thing, why change?”
But this year may have pushed some farmers into trying cover crops when they otherwise wouldn’t. “I would say there’s the most planted in Dundas County ever this year,” owing mostly to back-to-back drought years gutting alfalfa yields. “(Cover crops are) a no-brainer if you can feed them to cattle. For the last two years, there’s been some farms that could maintain their herds because they had cover crops after wheat that fed their livestock all winter.”
“A lot of change comes from necessity,” he said. A very poor alfalfa yield means cover crops are looking really good.