By Connor Lynch
DRESDEN — Laurent Van Arkel, better known as Woody, swung by the Eastern Ontario Crop Conference in February to share 20 years experience with cover crops.
Arkel, who cash crops and finishes hogs just south of Dresden, told Farmers Forum that even after 20 years of experimentation with different cover crops, he hasn’t got it all figured out yet. But he’s learned a couple of things in that time that could be useful for farmers considering putting in cover crops.
There is no one-size-fits-all cover crop. Cover crops need to be tailored to the conditions in your area. The Midwest Cover Crop Council’s website has a tool that lets a grower put in his conditions and it spits out recommendations for cover crops to put in.
Get seeding rates on cover crops down. Better to have too few than too many, said Arkel. Yields don’t matter for cover crops because that’s not why they’re being grown, and a thick stand can result in a lot of residue once it dies, which can be problematic to get rid of and can choke out the cash crop following it.
Be patient. Soil health won’t be improved in a noticeable way in the first couple of years. Similarly, don’t rush into planting a cover crop. Take some time to do research on the crop, talk to other farmers about their experience, start with one crop and start small. Arkel recommended five acres. “A five-acre mistake is easier to deal with than a 50-acre mistake.”
There’s pros and cons to cover crops, said Arkel. He grows them because they help him leave the soil undisturbed, they improve his soil biology, and keep nutrients on the farm. But they create challenges as well.
Arkel has been experimenting with planting corn into a living cover crop, cereal rye. The stands keep the soil dry and the corn will grow up between the rye nicely, he said, and then the corn doesn’t have to try and fight through residue.
But the least predictable factor on the farm, the weather, makes the difference in whether to terminate the cover crop early or leave it. If things are looking dry, killing the crop makes sense to trap moisture in the soil; if rain is coming, leave it in.
Cover crops are a system, and they require, eventually, a change in how the whole farm is managed, added Arkel. “Start simple, start small.”