By Connor Lynch
MORRISBURG — Warren Schneckenburger was at the Eastern Ontario crop conference in Kemptville last month talking cover crops and what he’s learned about them the hard way.
Cover crops, and the decision to grow them, are as much a philosophical discussion as anything else, said Schneckenburger. “Agriculture as a whole is generally degrading our soils over hundreds of years. That’s not sustainable.”
There’s a cash factor as well, not to mention waste and pollution. “We’re spending all this money on these soils (on nutrients) and sending it in boatloads down the ditches in soil erosion. To me, that’s no longer acceptable.”
If neither of those things bother you, don’t plant cover crops, he said. But if they do, Schneckenburger has some home-grown advice for farmers.
The benefits of cover crops have been well-advertised, he said, but the promises of riches aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “The advertising (says) you’ll make a fortune. I don’t know about that.”
Cover crops aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s possible to narrow down what will work for your operation. First, go to the Midwest Cover Crop Council’s website, go into the selector tools tab, and choose the row-crop tool. Put in your information and what you want from your cover crop and the website will narrow down your search from a list of hundreds of species. Shneckenburger’s list dropped to just one, cereal rye.
Here are a few of Schneckenburger’s hard-earned tips:
• No-till is king. “If you’re going to be doing tillage, it’s a free country, but the benefits are almost (entirely) lost. As soon as you do the tillage, anything you did for the soil is undone.”
• Go in with a goal. Schneckenburger wanted to improve soil health long-term, which he admitted was fairly abstract as goals go. His short-term goal was to get faster-drying fields in the spring and preserve moisture in late-season soybeans.
• Get down on your knees and look at the soil close up. “You’re seeing your farm from a whole different perspective.” He added that after a year or two of growing cover crops, growers can actually see and feel a difference in the soil. “The colour changes, the texture changes.” Cover crops do things like slow down falling raindrops, which cuts down on run-off. Cover crops can increase or reduce disease pressure. “You can see these differences if you get down and look.”
• While you’re at it, grab a shovel and dig. Although stands matter, they’re not nearly as important as the roots of his cover crop. They’re the key to cultivating organic matter in his soil, so even if his cereal rye has a pitiful stand, if it has a good root structure, it’s still a win in his book.
• Kill cover crops. Kill it early before growing corn, he said. If Schneckenburger’s cereal rye gets too big, not only is it gobbling up nitrogen meant for corn, but when he kills it, it’ll release a chemical that will stunt corn growth. Soybeans are more ambiguous. “If it’s looking like drought, kill (cover crop) early. If it looks wet, you can even leave it until soybeans start emerging.”
• Residue management is key. Keep a close eye on the combine corn head, making sure that the knives aren’t worn or they haven’t moved. In the same vein, residue management out the back of the combine needs close attention, he said. Advancements in headers that have in some cases outpaced the combines means that some combines won’t throw the residue the full width of the header. Some combines aren’t capable of it, but some just aren’t set up properly, said Schneckenburger.
• “Start smaller scale and try and do it as cheaply as possible. Talk to farmers in your area who are cover cropping. Ask them what works for them. Try it on your own (farm). After that first year, you can see what’s working and adjust your plan accordingly.”
Ultimately, remember that a cover cropper is a cash cropper first, he said. “If you’re going to be losing money on the crop you’re selling, you need to rethink your cover cropping.”