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Cover Crop Corner: Economic Series Part Two: Long-Term Gains Through Holistic Improvements

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In part two of this two-part series on the economics of cover crops, we explore how a holistic approach to taking care of resources comes with long-term gains. Read part one here.

There are no “quick fixes” when it comes to the health of soils, the benefits take more than overnight to show up. While it takes time and deliberate care to learn how to enhance resources holistically within your own system, the general principles are relatively simple and can be significant cost savings.

“Soil is the natural capital of the land,” explains Dr Shannon Cappellazzi, GO Seed Director of Research. “By making the investment in soil health, not only are you making an impact on all of the downstream ecosystem services that are related to soil functions, you are also regenerating the land for continued agricultural production.”

In this pursuit, the right cover crops can make a monumental difference for crop and livestock systems. Below are a few ways cover crops enhance soil health, which is all about the capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem.

Dealing With Compaction For Long-Term Gains

Soil compaction is a common issue for row crop and forage producers resulting from continual hoof and equipment traffic. According to the University of Georgia Extension, compaction tends to affect the first three to four inches of topsoil for pastures and hayfields. This falls into the zone that is crucial for root growth and movement necessary for maximal nutrient and water absorption.

Compaction impacts the physical attributes of the soil by reducing the pore space necessary for air, water and nutrient movement. The biological aspect – including fungi, microorganisms and earthworms – can be adversely affected as well.

soil compaction long-term gains

“Especially in row crop systems, the best way to maintain a healthy, productive, functional soil is to have living roots in the ground for as much of the year as possible,” explains Cappellazzi. “As plants photosynthesize, they send a lot of that carbon (30-70%) they capture down through the roots.”

A diversity of crops and rooting structures during and outside of peak grazing or row crop season can help nurture a balanced community of bacteria, fungi, arthropods, and earthworms in the soil. This is important because it is this whole range of organisms working along with plant roots that actively control building soil aggregates.

“This active process creates large pore spaces and can start to remediate soil compaction. Aggregate structure has an influence on water moving into and being stored in the soil, as well as oxygen availability for plant roots and other soil organisms,” explains Cappellazzi.

“This provides a positive feedback cycle by allowing the organisms to be better at their jobs and build even better intricate underground architecture which enhance the soil’s ability to perform the functions we need as a society and as agricultural producers.”

Tillage has long been thought of as is a remedy for compaction, but it can be more detrimental than beneficial, especially in areas with heavy clay-based soil types by creating serious tillage pans.

The financial cost of using equipment is also notable. According to the University of Minnesota, a single pass of tillage equipment can cost $14 to $21 an acre.

Cover Crop Strategies outline three species that are specifically good for fields suffering compaction. Oats, for example, can help build up the soil’s organic matter and fit in well with many other species. A robust legume like red clover, with its hardy and prolific growth, is a great tool for building up the soil.

Strong taproots, as found in oilseed radish, are also prime tools for battling compaction. Oilseed radish has roots that can penetrate 10 inches deep and break through some very tough soils.

Natural Nutrient Cycling

That soil organic carbon that everyone seems to be talking about is important because it is what feeds the microbial community that also provide the service of cycling mineral and organic nutrients, making them available to plants.

Active roots in particular have an impact on soil fertility. The sugars and other carbon compounds that are pumped through the roots into the soil, feed the microbial community. This carbon is used as food and energy so they can grow and reproduce. As they do this, they cycle nutrients, turning soil organic matter into plant available nutrients. Legume crops in particular are known to make a lot of nitrogen available to subsequent crops.

This is because they form symbiotic relationships with rhizobia bacteria who take nitrogen from the air and transform it into plant available forms, referred to as nitrogen fixation. Many crops also form associations with mycorrhizal fungi which trade phosphorus, water, and likely other nutrients to the crop in exchange for these carbon compounds fixed by the plant through photosynthesis.

“Another way that cover crops can impact fertility is by reducing nutrient leaching through the soil profile,” says Cappellazzi. “They can take off-season, soluble soil nutrients into their biomass which can be released in the following season during decomposition of the cover crop while the cash crop is growing.”

Providing the habitat requirements of the soil organisms, therefore, not only enhances nutrient use efficiency and can decrease fertilizer costs, it can also have a positive societal impact by decreasing nutrient leaching into ground and eventually surface waters.

Enhancing water infiltration

With ample ground cover and an extensive root system, cover crops are a great way to help promote water flow in the soil.

“After the cover crop grows and dies, it leaves behind root channels,” explains Jim Johnson, Senior Ag Consultant, at Noble Research Institute. “These create pore space for water to soak into the soil.”

Cover crops can also serve as a “buffer” against runoff from manure spreading and other nutrients.  Research from the University of California-Davis found that cover crops and vegetative strips were effective at reducing excessive nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and pathogens from pasture.

Many cover crop varieties have extensive root systems that help lock in the soil and stabilize loose particles that might otherwise be washed away. They can also help boost organic matter and create a habitat for earthworms and microbes.

“This soil biology creates good soil aggregation. Which also leaves pore spaces between aggregates, so that water can infiltrate and soak into the soil,” adds Johnson.

Maximizing what is important to your system

There are multiple ways that cover crops can help alleviate expenses by providing long-term benefits that will contribute to prolific pastures and cropping systems for years to come.

“Cover crops can help us maximize or at least increase the four-ecosystem process by positively supporting water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics of involved species,” says Johnson. “Improving these ecosystem processes is all good for long-term soil health.”

Each producer should remember their own set of goals, Cappellazzi notes, and consider details like local climate, soil, and productions system to choose the right cover crop.

“Rather than considering the change in yield, we want to shift producers focus to a change in profit,” says Cappellazzi. “If you get 5% less yield, but you have a 50% reduction in your costs related to fertilizer or chemicals or fuel or equipment, you can make a lot more money. Folks who follow the principles have shown excellent increases in their profit per acre when using the right cover crop as part of their production system to meet their goals.”

Editorial Notes

Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email fgonzales@goseed.com.

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List of Cover Crops By Season

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Cover crops are highly versatile and many span across seasons, in this article, we’re going to do our best to organize them for quick research.

Some people still believe that cover crops are simply crops that farmers plant in empty fields in the winter to prevent erosion, so the idea of a cover crop for every season will seem strange. 

Keep reading to explore our ultimate list of cover crops.

The reality is that cover crops, which have been used by agriculturists since at least Roman times, can serve many purposes, and savvy farmers put these multitasking plants to work throughout the year.

The Many Uses of Cover Crops
Cover crops can be a powerful tool for farmers who want to create the best conditions in their fields. As Earth Observing System notes, a plan that includes cover crops can accomplish many things:

  • Preventing soil erosion.
  • Optimizing nitrogen balance.
  • Maximizing biomass input.
  • Regulating moisture.
  • Boosting soil microbial life.
  • Improving soil nutrient profile.
  • Aiding in weed and pest management.
  • Addressing soil compaction issues and enhance aeration.
  • Attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects.
  • Providing grazing or forage.

List of Cover Crops for All Seasons

The tasks that cover crops can accomplish aren’t limited to any particular season, so there’s no need to limit their use to just part of the year. While they’re frequently used in the off-season when cash crops are not present, they can and should be grown whenever there’s a need or potential benefit to the soil. In fact, some farmers are now “planting green.” 

This involves planting a cash crop into a living cover crop and allowing both crops to grow together for a period of time. Whatever approach you decide on, getting the most benefit out of a cover crop takes some planning. 

You’ll need to consider a variety of factors:

  • Your goal.
  • The location.
  • The preceding crop.
  • The crop that will follow.
  • The cover cropping window.
  • Your cover crop termination method.

It’s also important to mention that breeders and producers are innovating and developing cover crops that can be grown in many seasons.

For example, Balansa Clover comes from the warmer southern Mediterranean, however we’ve been able to breed incredible cold-tolerance into it, capable of surviving temperatures as low as -14 degrees F.

Spring Cover Crops

spring cover crops

Spring can be a tricky time with unsettled temperatures and, depending on your location, the potential for the last frost of the year. 

Weather can be equally unpredictable, so choosing a cover crop requires care. Lancaster Farming offers a couple of suggestions:

  • Field peas. This popular annual can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked and matures in 50 to 75 days. With edible tops and tendrils, it works as a forage crop while also offering moderate weed suppression and fixing nitrogen issues. Plus, its biomass decomposes quickly, making it an effective soil builder.
  • Oats. Fast-growing annuals, oats can be planted throughout the spring season. They prevent erosion, build up biomass, suppress weed growth, and build soil, but you should expect growth to slow down when the weather turns hot and dry.
  • Red clover. The preferred time of establishment is in early spring or early summer, this legume is capable of fixing nitrogen, suppressing weeds, and is easily frost seeded into standing winter wheat or barley.

Summer Cover Crops

summer cover crops

Summer cover crops can help retain moisture on hot, sunny days and attract pollinators during the growing season. Whether you are preparing a field for its next cash crop or experimenting with planting green, you have plenty of options. 

Penn State Extension has a couple of recommendations:

  • Pearl millet. A warm-season grass, pearl millet handles drought with ease as it works to optimize nitrogen levels in the soil and suppress soil-borne diseases. It winter kills, and produces high organic input for the soil. In fact, it can reach heights of 12 feet if it isn’t mowed.
  • Sudangrass A summer standard, sudangrass soaks up the summer sun with ease. In fact, it requires warm soil to germinate. As it grows, it puts out large amounts of plant matter, which means it’s generally good for soil building and weed suppression. However, sudangrass can produce toxic levels of nitrate and hydrogen cyanide when young or stressed by a frost or drought. Never graze or forage at those times.
  • Buckwheat. Another summer standard due to its quick growth that suppresses summer annual weeds and improves soil aggregation.
  • Sun Hemp. A fast growing tropical legume that needs substantial heat to create substantial biomass and nitrogen fixation.
  • Cow Peas. One of the oldest crops to be farmed, cow peas are a fast growing, summer cover crop that is well adapted to a wide range of soil conditions.
  • Soybean. One of the best economic choices for a summer cover crop, it establishes quickly and competes fiercely with weeds and are able to withstand short periods of drought.

Fall Cover Crops

fall cover crops

Autumn is harvest time and another time of seasonal transition. Producers will need to be mindful of final frost dates for their areas as they choose the cover crop appropriate for their goals. 

The Virginia Association for Biological Farming shares a couple of ideas:

  • Radishes. These hardy brassicas winterkill in Virginia and the northern half of the country, making termination fairly simple. The remaining biomass decays rapidly, nourishing the soil, suppressing weed growth, and helping to pave the way for next spring’s planting. However, to avoid issues with disease, radishes should not be grown either immediately before or after another brassica vegetable crop.
  • Hairy vetch. Planted in early fall in the Mid-Atlantic region, hairy vetch thrives in a variety of soils. Like other vetches, it generally leaves them better than it found them by improving both nitrogen and phosphorus levels. The annual legume also provides an excellent habitat for beneficial insects.
  • Subterranean clovers. Also called subclovers, these clovers offer lowgrowing, self-reseeding legumes with excellent weed suppression. They grow best during late summer or early winter, going dormant during the coldest months. Subclovers are found on thousands of acres of California orchards.
  • Ball clover. Often seeded with other cool season grasses in early October, this small seeded legume is an excellent reseeder and can tolerate wet soils.
  • Austrian Winter Peas. A favorite of whitetail deers, this cool-season annual legume offers nitrogen-fixing capabilities and is very easy to establish in fall food plots. As the name implies, this variety would also work well in the winter, sow by early fall for early spring growth.

Winter Cover Crops

winter cover crops

Winter cover crops are actually planted in the late fall before the final frost so that they have time to establish themselves. While some hardy varieties continue to grow, especially in more mild climates, others go dormant during the winter and resume their growth as temperatures warm in the spring. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a couple of suggestions:

  • Winter rye. A hardy and reliable choice, winter rye can be planted in the late fall. It establishes itself easily, produces a lot of biomass, and plays well with other popular cover crops when a mix is desired to fix nutrient issues with the soil.
  • Crimson clover. Easily crimped or used as a mulch, this hardy clover is a great way to add nitrogen to soil. It’s frequently mixed with brassicas, ryegrass, and small grains.
  • Balansa clover. Originally from the southern Mediterranean, this annual clover is capable of fixing large amounts of nitrogen and biomass. Some varieties like our FIXation Balansa Clover can even grow through short periods of standing water.
  • Berseem clover. Also native to the Mediterranean, berseem clover has been the foundation for agriculture in the Nile Delta due to it’s tolerance for salt and a synergistic relationship to alfalfa. Like our balansa clover, GO Seed’s Frosty Berseem Clover has been bred for later maturity, improved cold tolerance, productivity, and nutritional value.
  • Persian clover. Another Mediterranean clover with the ability to survive cold winter temperatures (10 degrees F) and frost. This clover is well suited to sandy to loam to clay-loam soils with a pH between 5.5 and 9. Like Balansa clover, it can also tolerate waterlogging and mild salinity.
  • Arrowleaf clover. Guess where this clover originated from? That’s right, the Mediterranean. They’re not only known for great food and warm waters, they also produce highly productive winter annual clovers. Arrowleaf is a prolific seed producer and great for reseeding.

Whatever the season, the right cover crop can help you reach your goal of regenerating and improving soil health. 

To learn more about cover crops, visit Go Seed’s Cover Crop Corner

Are you seeking cover crop solutions that you can use? Check out Go Seed’s cover crop offerings here.

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Cover Crop Corner: Economic Series Part One: How To Reduce Farm Inputs

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In part one of this three-part series on the economics of cover crops, we explore how to reduce farm inputs.

“Yeah, the principle of cover crops makes sense but how much are they going to cost me?” 

From farmers using them in rotations to field experts alike, this is one of the most common questions they get asked when discussing the integration of cover crops. And in a business where inputs can quickly get out of hand and cut into thin profit margins, it is understandably so. 

According to Jerry Hall, President for GO SEED, this question needs to be flipped on its head with farmers asking, “How much can cover crops save me?” 

“With strategic use, cover crops can help decrease inputs like fuel and labor, while providing long-term production benefits from resource improvement,” explains Hall. “To see the full potential, they bring to an operation, we need to stop chasing yield and look at the overall production picture. That’s where we’ll see the real savings.”

But putting cover crops in the ground isn’t an automatic ticket to financial success, with cost considerations of the cover crop itself needing to be kept in check, adds University of Missouri’s Rob Myers, Director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Ray Massey, Extension Professor in Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Below, they discuss how famers can considerably reduce inputs with cover crops while also reducing inputs related to cover crop production. 

Equipment-Related Expenses 

Something to pay special attention to when using cover crops is how much is being spent on all equipment-related expenses. 

rob myers director of the center for regenerative agriculture

“If the cover crop doesn’t grow, throwing the seed out there is really just burning money,” says Myers. “Farmers need to have a good plan for establishing their cover crops just like they do with cash crops.”

This means cover crops need to be seeded at the right time with the right equipment for the cover crop species being used. To ensure adequate distribution, the drill or row planter needs to be checked and calibrated to ensure seeds have the best soil contact possible. 

“Broadcasting cover crop seed can also work,” Myers adds, “but it’s not a good idea with larger cover crop seeds or really late in the fall when there is little time for a rain to come.”

Extension Professor in Agricultural and Applied Economics Ray Massey, at the University of Missouri says there are some hidden equipment costs that farmers need to be aware of as well. For example, he recently spoke with his farmer who assumes a $7 an acre custom rate for planting while, figuring his own equipment is more efficient at about $5 an acre. But that $5 charge doesn’t necessarily account for all the costs of equipment.

“People look at cost differently,” Massey explains, “things that people experience or feel (differently) is cash cost.” All farmers consider fuel to be a real cost of putting in a crop. But some farmers ignore their own labor or the depreciation on their equipment.

 “I encourage producers to recognize all costs.”

On the flip side, there are equipment related savings to be had by integrating cover crops into a no-till type system, says Hall, especially when it comes to fuel. 

A recent analysis by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Conservation Effects Assessment Project compared gallons of fuel used in seasonal and no-till systems with fuel consumption in conventional tillage systems. This looked at farms across the continental US, breaking them into 10 different regional locations. 

“On average, conventional tillage was found to use more than six gallons of fuel per acre each year, while no-till used two gallons of fuel per acre each year,” explains Hall. “As of mid-August, the average price of diesel is $3.18. For someone farming 1,000 acres, going to a no-till system has a cost savings of $12,720 per year on fuel alone.”

fuel savings cover crops

Reduce Farm Inputs: Feed Potential  

For livestock producers, using animals to harvest cover crops rather than equipment has huge cost savings. With the right feed quality, they can also cut huge chunks out of the feed bill. 

Feed costs tend to encompass 65-75 percent of a livestock operation’s feed budget. When utilizing grazed forage, producers can save 10-20 percent of that cost of production. 

livestock feed costs

Nearly 20 years ago, 50 percent of Double J Jersey’s feed budget for the Monmouth, Ore., farm was spent on feed costs. 

“We’d taken an operating loan out to buy alfalfa for winter feed. I knew that if we ever wanted to get out of debt and create the opportunity for the next generation to come back to a thriving business that things had to change,” recalls the farm’s owner Jon Bansen. 

Working with GO SEED, Bansen overhauled his forage production to maximize grazed feed. 

While the sweet spot for making money is to have 50 percent of all feed consumed as grazed forage, Bansen has pushed it even further with 90 percent of feed coming from grazed forage for six months of the season and the early and later edges sitting at 60 percent. 

This was achieved by establishing mixtures with upwards of 10 different species with grasses, forbs, herbs and legumes and putting cows on a 30-day rotation. Rather than grazing covers tight for increased forage quality, Bansen leaves five inches of covers to support soil health and lock in moisture. 

As a result, the only bought-in feed costs the farm currently has are a few loads of alfalfa each year and carrot pulp that cows receive to encourage them into the milking parlor. 

However, to capture these savings, the right varieties and grazing methods must be utilized. There are also infrastructure considerations to be had.  

“Cover crops can be a good way to provide extra forage on a farm,” explains Myers. “If water and fencing are already available, grazing cover crops can provide a profitable return in the first year.” 

Another reason more farmers are using cover crops is that they are seeing the benefits of using cereal rye to help control herbicide-resistant weeds. Rye can also function as part of a field’s overall weed management strategy; the rye will typically still be used in combination with herbicides, but potentially the total cost of the weed control program may be less. 

“Overall having a strategy for how the cover crops fit into the field management plan can help lower input costs and provide modest yield boosts over time,” Myers continues. “Not necessarily in the first year of use but as soil health improves.”

Growing Costs 

Like any other crop, cover crops will require some degree of growing costs. 

For soils that are highly compacted, Myers recommends deep rooted types that can penetrate such as radishes. 

reduce farm inputs and compaction with radish

In soils with fertility issues, legumes like crimson clover or hairy vetch can do well and help restore the soil. 

crimson clover hairy vetch

“In a national cover crop economics review we did through the USDA-SARE program, we determined that it takes cover crops an average of three years to break even, then after that they provide a profitable return in subsequent years,” he explained. “This means that in the majority of farm situations, there is an investment cost in the first couple of years. Farmers need to have a multi-year perspective.”

One common mistake is not paying attention to residual herbicides that have been on a field, Myers says. Herbicides that were put in advance may be strong enough to kill a cover crop, particularly Brassicas and some of the legume cover crops; grasses such as cereal rye or triticale are less affected.

“It’s important to review what chemicals have been sprayed on a field and how it might impact relevant cover crops,” says Myers.  

But used correctly, cover crops can decrease certain input costs associated to growing a crop. This comes down to variety selection and management practice, adds Hall. 

“Rather than leaving fields bare post-harvest, establishing a rapid growing cover crop is going to out compete weeds, reducing pressure on the subsequent crop,” he says. 

In work done by USDA-SARE looking at conservation tillage systems in the southeast, it was found that planting a rye cover crop in Mississippi reduced total weed biomass by 19-38 percent across different tillage systems and total weed density by 9-27 percent. 

Heavy hitting legumes bred specifically to fix high amounts of nitrogen can also make a dent in fertilizer costs, notes Hall. 

“Legumes are signature for forming root nodules from rhizobia bacteria which pull in nitrogen from the atmosphere as nutrient resource for the plant to grow. Root nodules also release nitrogen into the soil as an available nutrient for companion and succeeding crops. However, the real magic happens as the legume ends its lifecycle, releasing nitrogen into the soil as components of it begins to decompose,” says Hall. 

In a trial conducted at the Ewing Demonstration Center (EDC) in Illinois, decomposing FIXatioN Balansa clover added 269 pounds of nitrogen per acre over a period of six and a half months. In return, FIXatioN Balansa clover improved the soil nitrogen contribution and soil ammonium ppm by 40 percent and 80 percent in just four weeks after corn emergence (WAE).

While it adds to seed costs, legumes quickly pay for themselves in the amount of nitrogen added to the soil which is immediately available to succeeding crops. Data from the EDC trial shows FIXatioN Balansa clover fixed 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre at 4 WAE. Based on a rate of $0.60 per pound for nitrogen fertiliser, this is a cost savings of $30 per acre. At 10 WAE, 84 pounds of nitrogen per acre was fixed for a cost savings of $50.40 per acre. [LW1]

Time Resource

From a time resource point of view, how cover crops play into the farm’s calendar is another point of economic significance. For example, Massey says killing a cover crop is usually left to the busiest time of the year. 

“You will want to spend time on a pre-emergent or pre-plant application of an herbicide that isn’t in any way adding to your field work activities,” explains Massey. 

“From an economic perspective, people value time according to time of the year,” he says. “If you’re not already doing that activity, particularly in the spring, it’s an additional cost because it’s not something you would normally do.”

When used to support a no-till system, this can be alleviated. In the same project that found no-till conservation systems to have a significant reduction on fuel use, it also found farmers saved around 67 hours of work per eliminated pass when working a 1,000-acre field at 15 acres per hour.  

Think Big Picture But Outline What You Are Trying To Achieve

While the above outline a few input saving opportunities farmers may be able to achieve with the right adoption of cover crops, making a sustainable dent in operation costs is only going to happen if clear objectives are set and then worked towards, says Hall, Massey and Myers. 

“You really need to have a long-term strategy to reap the rewards. Think of it like using lime to raise soil pH – which can take upwards of three years to payoff – or buying new equipment,” says Myers. “Addressing specific goals, such as grazing or weed control, can help cover crops pay off more quickly – sometimes in just a year or two. But once cover crops have a chance to start improving soil health, that’s when we see bigger profit returns for long-term performance and resilience of the field.” 

In part two of this three-part series, we will discuss the economic benefits of improved resources like soil health. 

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4 things to keep an eye on when purchasing seed for fall planting

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Ordering seed as soon as possible and ensuring quality is essential ahead of fall planting. Here’s some tips on purchasing seed for fall planting.

purchasing seed for fall

As we approach the fall cover crop planting season, the industry is starting to see shortages of a few different crops like radishes, hairy vetch, and annual clovers due to the record amount of acreage that was planted last year as part of USDA’s prevent plant programme.

What we typically see in shortage situations is that seed will still be available to producers – however, it may be the bottom of the bin in terms of quality and can carry a lot of risks.

While it is essential to get your seed ordered as soon as possible for fall planting, ensuring the quality is also paramount. Here are four things to keep an eye on when ordering seed:

1. What is the purity in seed for fall?

By law, seed being sold for planting must have a purity test to identify weed content percentages. However, this is not the case if seed is marked to be fed as livestock feed so clarity between both the seller and buyer needs to be established for what the intended purpose of the seed is.

When evaluating purity tests, there is no take it or leave it benchmark for contamination percentages. Instead, weigh up the risks against what you are trying to achieve and if the weed is going to be controllable or not.

Lastly, make sure the purity test matches the lot number stenciled on the seed bag and look at the contents before you dump it in the drill. Mistakes can happen and carry a heavy consequence of weed issues for years to come.

2. Has it been tested for germination?

Again, federal law dictates that seed being sold for planting must have a germination test, typically within a nine-month window ahead of selling. Because certain seeds are very fragile and can have significant reductions in germination due to mishandling, an on-farm germination test is a good backup.

This can easily be done by counting out 20 seeds, dropping them on a paper towel, wet it, roll it up and throw it in a Ziplock bag. Most seed will germinate in seven to 10 days.

Learn more about reading seed labels.

3. Will it work in your local environment?

While certain cover crops come into fashion and gain attention from the success seen by different producers, they need to be evaluated on how they will perform on a farm or ranch’s unique environment – just because it worked for someone 1,000 miles away, doesn’t mean it is going to work for you.

A great way to learn about what does and doesn’t work in your local area is to start speaking to your neighbors. It is important to understand what they are trying to achieve and the practices they are implementing. Another way to get an idea of what works in your area for specific goals is to analyze raw data from research trials. A platform like the Cover Crop Information Map, centralizes farm trial and industry research data into one location, allowing users to hone in on 26 different topics in their local area. Combining this data with neighbor feedback will give you a good starting point to start your own farm trials before implementing something new broadscale.

4. Does it have the genetics to perform?

While it may come with a cheaper price tag and be readily available, it is best to avoid the use of variety not stated seed (VNS) as it is essentially a crapshoot when it comes to consistency of performance. To ensure good performance and to have reliable data that will allow you to make strategic management decisions, cover crop seed should be selected for variety traits.

For example, knowing things like heading dates will allow you to achieve maximum growth while being able to terminate the crop before it becomes a weed. Or, if you’re wanting to reduce bought-in feed costs, variety data will allow you to select a crop that you can count on to produce a high amount of biomass.

If you haven’t done so already, get your seed orders into your merchants as soon as possible and keep these four pieces of advice at the forefront of your purchase decision process. Not only will these considerations minimize risk and help maximize cover crop investment, but they will also ensure the purchase of quality seed of varieties that are proven to perform.

  • ENDS –
    Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED (formally known as Grassland Oregon) and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to the author or GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email laura@abccomms.co.uk.
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6 Types of Soil Erosion

Splash Erosion

Good, fertile soil and clean, healthy water are invaluable resources for agricultural producers. Soil erosion is a serious threat to both. 

As WWF explains, erosion can disrupt the soil, sweeping away sediment and nutrients until it is no longer suitable for farming. Unfortunately, if that misplaced sediment becomes runoff, it can end up choking nearby waterways and lowering water quality. 

Learning to recognize the six types of soil erosion can help you protect your livelihood and the natural resources that are essential to its success.

Splash Erosion

Splash erosion starts with a fall of rain, which might be why it’s sometimes called raindrop erosion. As Oklahoma State University explains, this type of erosion occurs when a raindrop hits the soil and dislodges particles of soil, splashing them up and away. Once freed, these particles are more vulnerable to being swept away by other forces.

This type of erosion is hard to detect. If you look closely after a hard rain, you might be able to spot places where small bits of soil have been splashed up onto various surfaces. When the disturbed soil simply falls back into place, there’s not much trouble. However, when wind or water carries the detached soil away, you’ll find yourself losing your topsoil if you don’t take action.

6 types of erosion splash

Sheet Erosion

If rainwater begins to move the soil that’s been loosened by splash erosion, the erosion of the soil progresses to a new stage. It’s now called sheet erosion. A heavy rain or runoff that crosses a shallow surface can allow enough water to gather to pull the loosened soil particles from surfaces and sweep them away.

As Iowa State University reports, sheet erosion is practically invisible. Light-colored soil is often a clue that years of rain-driven runoff may have been eroding valuable topsoil.

Sheet Erosion

Rill Erosion

Picture a sandbox after a child has trailed their fingertips through it. While the scale tends to be a bit bigger than that, and it only expands with more time and water, that’s the basic effect that rill erosion has on the land. 

This form of erosion leaves the ground marked with parallel lines of small, clear-cut channels. The rills are generally no more than 30 cm deep, according to Safeopedia.

As water continues to move through these lines, it begins to erode the surrounding soil. Shallow rills can generally be removed by tilling, but if they’re allowed to progress, they can form gullies.

Rill Erosion

Gully Erosion

If rills aren’t tended to, the erosion will continue. Eventually, the narrow strips of land separating the multitude of rills will be swept away, leaving one larger scar behind. Once again, the erosion has evolved to a new stage. A gully is a channel that is too deep to be eradicated with normal tillage methods.

Gully erosion can carve fierce scars across fields. As Oklahoma State University indicates, some gullies reach depths of 20 feet. These features can create real hazards for livestock and farmers. If awkwardly located, they may make sections of fields inefficient to farm or outright unusable.

Wind Erosion

While pictures of tumbleweeds and windstorms are often associated with the American West, the reality is that wind erosion can steal valuable topsoil from any location where the soil is dry, bare, and unprotected by vegetation. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it’s particularly problematic under certain conditions:

  • The soil is fine, loose, and dry.
  • There are large fields with no obstacles to block the wind.
  • The wind is strong enough to move the soil.

Floodplain Erosion

The areas along waterways are often incredibly fertile. They also offer easy access to water for irrigation and may even provide a way to transport goods to market. With the benefits they offer, it’s no wonder that agricultural operations have often settled alongside waterways whenever possible. However, there is a danger lurking: floodplain erosion.

Flooding can do a lot of damage. Floodplain erosion may not be the kind that makes headlines, but it is a very real concern for those who count on quality soil for their livelihoods. 

According to Home Stratosphere, rushing flood waters can strip off 0.1m to 0.15m of topsoil. Basically, an entire layer of soil is snatched away in an instant. Meanwhile, the remaining subsoils are left vulnerable to further erosion.

Floodplain Erosion

Protecting Your Topsoil From Many Types of Soil Erosion

Erosion is a natural force, but it isn’t inevitable. As The Natural Resources Defense Council reports, there are steps that landowners can take to counteract its corrosive efforts and protect the soil:

  • Plant vegetation. Bare soil is at risk, so consider using cover crops to provide uninterrupted ground cover and bind and nourish the soil. Trees, hedgerows, and other plants cultivated as wind blocks can also be helpful.
  • Utilize no-till or minimal tillage practices. Research suggests that no-till and minimal tillage practices offer significant benefits. Leaving the soil undisturbed helps it hold onto greater quantities of vital nutrients like nitrogen. It can also decrease both erosion and runoff, which boosts water quality and crop productivity.
  • Build soil organic matter. Soil organic matter helps to keep soil anchored. Increasing the amount in the mix can not only reduce erosion but also improve water-holding capacity.
  • Be mindful when selecting grazing practices. Implementing rotational grazing and other mindful practices can limit soil compaction and erosion.

Soil erosion is an ongoing battle between various forces. On one side, you have the wind and water that would steal the soil particles away. On the other, you have gravity and the proactive efforts of people who want to protect a valuable natural resource. While it may take a little thought and energy, those efforts can make a real difference.

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Creating a stronger beef business with a resilient grazing system

livestock resilient grazing system
livestock resilient grazing system

Through disrupted supply chains impacting beef prices and marketing opportunities to tight commodity supplies inflating the cost of feed, beef producers have had to navigate some extreme variables throughout the last year.  

However, as profit margins continue to become ever slim it’s worth asking – how can producers take back more control?  

Creating a resilient grazing system  

The answer is in the grazing system, says Dr Woody Lane, independent grazing consultant at Lane Livestock Services in Roseburg, Ore. 

According to Dr Lane, feeding tends to encompass 65-75 percent of the operation’s budget, making a resilient grazing system key for any cow-calf operation in the country.  

“I’m talking about the entire budget,” he says. “Not just the out-of-pocket costs of storing and buying corn or minerals.” 

Other costs directly related to feeding animals include details like buying or renting land, barns for storage, haying equipment and even hauling manure.

“If we can save 10 or 20 percent of the feed budget by taking advantage of grazed forage while still having healthy animals and maintaining performance, the cost of production is going to be much less expensive,” explains Dr Lane.  

Typically operating as price-takers, slashing the feed bill without sacrificing performance enables beef producers to survive more difficult periods while walking away with more additional income with conditions are favorable – that, to Dr Lane, is what makes an operation resilient.  

Extending the grazing season 

A powerful cost-saving tool when tightening the budget is extending the grazing season. Not only does this stretch out homegrown feed resources, but it reduces costs associated to machinery and labor by relying on livestock to harvest their own feed.  

“Not grazing livestock enough and feeding too much hay or baleage are some of the most common things I see that are adding unnecessary cost to the feed budget,” explains Dr Lane. “If you can drop the number of days you feed animals, you save a lot of money. But in order to do that, you have to have forages at times of the year, even when it doesn’t grow well.” 

This is where pasture management to extend the grazing system comes in. Essentially, it all comes down to the soil and growing forages that can maintain its fertility and absorbency, Dr Lane explains, as this will allow the overall pasture to remain greener and more prolific on both ends of the grazing season – even in times of dryness. This is particularly beneficial to mitigate what he calls the summer slump, when grass growth starts to slow down.  

“In the eastern part of the country, we start to see main forages like Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue slowdown in July and August,” he says. “By reducing that slump, you can get the grass growing better in various ways either changing the plant structure or changing the forage’s ability tendency to reduce the growth. These are all ways in which you are gaining more feed in the pasture at times when you previously didn’t have.” 

Finding the right forage tools  

While there is no cut and paste template that every operation can follow due to variables like unique environmental challenges, resources and business strategies, there are some points every producer should keep in mind when creating a more resilient grazing system.  

According to Risa DeMasi, co-founder of GO Seed and beef rancher’s daughter, selecting the right forage species to obtain the desired grazing system is a bit like genetic selection to build the desired cattle herd.  

“The principle of plant genetics and beef genetics are the same. Plant varieties can be bred for consistency of particular traits like cold tolerance, nitrogen fixation and the ability to survive in extreme wet or dry conditions – just like cattle can be bred for traits like calving ease or growth,” explains DeMasi. “These traits allow producers to select forages that will best perform in their environment while working to achieve their production goals.”  

In a recent trial by Mississippi State University, researchers Dr. Rocky Lemus and Daniel Rivera looked at how average daily liveweight gain (ADG) of cattle were impacted when grazing a monoculture of annual ryegrass against different mixtures including FIXatioN Balansa Clover, a high performing clover variety bred specifically to produce notable amounts of low bloating biomass and fix significant amounts of nitrogen. Alongside the monoculture of annual ryegrass, the three mixtures with balansa clover individually included annual ryegrass, oats and wheat.

Dr. Rocky Lemus Quote

Established the previous October, cattle were grazed in three different grazing periods running from February 25 to May 8. Across the grazing periods, cattle on the mixture of annual ryegrass and FIXatioN Balansa Clover outperformed the other pastures due to the higher nutritional value with an ADG of 2.65 pounds per day, for a 0.16 pound per day advantage over the annual ryegrass monoculture.

The annual ryegrass and balansa mixture also outperformed the small grain mixtures, with a 0.53 pound per day advantage over the oat mixture and a 0.66 pound per day advantage over the wheat mixture.

Extend Grazing Season

“Throughout the 72-day trial, adding the high performing balansa clover to a pasture of annual ryegrass resulted in cattle gaining an additional 11.52 pounds. While the ADG of cattle grazing the small grain mixtures were not as high, these findings show how valuable the inclusion of balansa clover to these types of grazing systems can be in improving animal performance,” explains DeMasi. 

To find which forage tools are the best for a system, Dr Lane recommends outlining basic growth patterns specific to a region – for example, many parts of the country see a surge of growth in May, a drop off in the summer, and then another major growth surge in the late summer and early fall. 

“You’re not going to change that completely,” he notes. “But what you can do is increase the amount of forage on the shoulders of all those hopes.” 

Depending on the region, for fall planting, a mixture of cool-season grasses, such as annual ryegrass and small grains, and legumes can provide high quality, non-bloating biomass, adds DeMasi. 

“Cereal rye is a good winter-hardy option, with grazing potential that starts early in the fall and extends throughout the winter, while oats tend to provide easily digestible forage that is high in protein at the early part of the grazing season,” she says. “To maximize biomass potential and increase protein levels further, consider incorporate later maturing, low bloat annual legumes like balansa or berseem clovers into your system.”

Soil type also needs to be factored in. As Dr Lane points out, drier soil types warm up faster in the spring compared to those that are heavy with clay. Fields that have these drier soil types have the advantage to plant forages that come up in the early spring. In this case, he recommends using forages that come up very quickly like annual ryegrass. 

“That will give you forage before the rest of it really comes on,” he says. “So, you can add two to three weeks of grazing. That’s two or three weeks less hay you have to feed.”

This can also allow for stockpiling forages like tall fescue or brassicas, which can have standing forage well into the winter months.

Additional benefits

A longer-lasting stand of forage can also empower beef producers to set more of their own standards when it comes to marketing animals, note both DeMasi and Dr Lane.

At periods where the sale prices are bad for cull animals, they can be held onto longer without incurring the additional feed expense. And for operations that are looking to finish animals on grass, extending the season may provide more flexibility at times of buying and selling.

“Beef operations are vulnerable to many varying factors that are out of control such as extreme weather conditions hurting feed availability to unfortunate circumstances disrupting the supply chain. This year has been no exception and challenged many operations in ways they’ve never been challenged before,” concludes Dr Lane. “By creating a more resilient grazing system to cut down on the greatest production cost in their budget, beef producers will be in a much stronger position going forward.” 

– ENDS –
Editorial Note: 
Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email laura@abccomms.co.uk.

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4 Effective Ways to Terminate Cover Crops

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There’s no question that cover crops have their benefits. After all, the right cover crop can improve nutrient availability and drainage while helping soils retain a healthy amount of moisture. It can also suppress weed growth, prevent erosion and soil compaction, and encourage beneficial insects and organisms to linger. 

However, there are times when you’ll need to clear the way for your cash crop. 

What do you do with a cover crop that has overstayed its welcome?

Consider using one of these four effective ways to terminate cover crops.

Winterkilling

winterkill terminate cover crops

Winterkilling, or natural termination, is the strategic use of cover crops that will naturally die off when hit by a hard freeze. With this method, there’s no need to take any direct action or worry about when to terminate. Winter does the work for you, leaving the crop residue in place on the field. 

While this hands-off approach to termination may seem simple, choosing the right cover crop for your area is essential.

Winterkilling requires minimal time, labor, and resources when compared to other methods of terminating cover crops. That creates the potential for substantial cost savings. 

However, it’s only suitable for certain climates, and you have far less control over the timing of the termination. Winterkilling also tends to provide both a shorter window of soil protection and a thinner layer of soil-conserving biomass.

Herbicides

herbicides terminate cover crops

Herbicides are chemical mixtures used to control undesirable vegetation. When using an herbicide program to terminate your cover crop, the plant is killed by an application of one or more herbicides at a specific time in its growth cycle. The optimal time varies by plant type, and the crop residue remains on the field unless you take action. 

What’s the trick for an effective herbicide program? 

As Purdue University explains, you’ll need to keep several factors in mind as you choose your herbicide and the time to apply it. Start by considering the cover crop species and its growth stage. Then, take into account the presence of any weed species. You’ll also need to consider the production crop that you’re planting. Finally, you’ll need to think about the weather on the day of application.

Using herbicides gives you more control over the timetable of your cover crop termination, but it’s imperative that you’re always thinking ahead when you use them. After all, the product that you apply today could limit your options for planting in that field tomorrow. Residues from certain herbicides can linger in the soil for weeks after an application. To avoid problems, you’ll want to terminate with an herbicide that will take out the cover crop without negatively impacting the cash crop that you’re planting next.

Mowing

Mowing is a quick way to mechanically terminate a cover crop. The blade cuts through the plant’s stem, leaving the root in place and the residue on the field. 

The nature of the cut depends on the mower used.

  • Sickle-bar mowers cut close to the surface
  • Rotary mowers cut higher
  • Flail mowers use double-edged blades that produce a finer residue that is more evenly distributed across the field’s surface and decomposes faster.

Mowing is popular and speedy, but as The Ohio State University indicates, its results can be unpredictable. Cover crop regrowth can be a problem, especially when it creates competition with cash crops for limited resources. 

The chopped residues left behind by the mower’s blades also decompose more quickly than the intact residues left behind by other methods. As a result, they’re less effective as mulch.

Roller Crimping

Rolling-crimping offers another form of mechanical termination. Here, hollow steel drums crush plants before blunt blades on the cylinder crush, or crimp, their stems. As Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education reports, you’ll generally act when cover crops are in a reproductive stage. However, there are exceptions. 

Some, like sorghum, produce better results if you wait to terminate until they’re mature. When rolling-crimping is done at the right time, the residue remains rooted in place. It forms a thick, unidirectional surface mulch that decomposes more slowly than mulches that have been chopped up by mowers.

Rolling-crimping creates an ideal environment for no-till planting because it creates a thick biomass that shields the soil and prevents weed growth. As Penn State Extension says, the keys to success with this method lie in crop selection and timing. 

For starters, you’ll want to select an annual variety. In addition, you’ll want to check that the cover crop you’re considering responds well to roller-crimping. Then, you’ll want to weigh the matter of timing carefully. Regrowth can be an issue if you don’t. 

What if you have a mix of cover crops in one field? It’s generally best to use the latest-maturing species as your guide. Used independently, rolling-crimping is a useful approach for organic operations. When desired, it can also be combined with herbicides.

Offsetting the Costs of Cover Crop Termination

When you’re searching for financial or technical assistance with resource management, The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service can be a useful ally. 

If you’re just getting started with cover crops, check out the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. With EQIP, participants can receive financial assistance for taking steps like implementing a cover crop program that improves agricultural operations while simultaneously leading to healthier soil and cleaner water and air. Meanwhile, those who would like financial support for an existing cover crop program might find it with the Conservation Stewardship Program. Depending on your operation’s location, you may also find support for your efforts from state or local programs.

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How Treating Bees Like Livestock Can Benefit Any Agricultural System

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Are bees like livestock? Bees play an integral part in the food chain. Here’s how any agricultural system can create beneficial pollinator habitats.

From livestock feed crops like alfalfa and clover to produce like blueberries and melons, commercial production of more than 100 US grown crops rely on bee pollination.

Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), indicate pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, contributing between $235 – $577 billion a year to global crops directly relying on pollinators. A recent study from Rutgers University puts that figure at $50 billion per year in the US alone.

bees like livestock not wildlife
A recent study from Rutgers University indicates pollinators contribute $50 billion per year in the US alone. By getting creative with cover crop integration and management on land with low productivity, agricultural producers can provide beneficial habitats for pollinators.

“Bees in particular are the most productive pollinators, serving as a key player in the food chain,” says Brent Jones, head of GO SEED’s Iowa Research Farm. “Yet in the last couple of decades, the bee population has significantly suffered, directly threatening global food production.”

According to the USDA, this decline is largely due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), resulting in colonies abandoning immature bees and food supply. A wide range of factors such as diseases, nutritional deficits, habitat loss, and climate variability has been attributed to this. The intensification of agricultural production leading to the decline of crop diversity has also been attributed to CCD.

Lessons from a science teacher turned vegetable farmer turned beekeeper

Cory Klehlm Bee Livestock Keeper

Integrating cover crops with varying blooming dates and high nutritional content significantly improved the health of Cory Klehm’s bee colony. In return, his vegetable farm saw yield improvements due to the increased pollination.

Growing up on a conventional corn and soybean farm in Iowa, Cory Klehm kept his interest in food production as he pursued a fulfilling career as a teacher. Twenty-six years later, present day finds him as the science teacher at Fairfield Middle School in the southeast part of his home state.

Fifteen years ago, Klehm and his wife, Shawn, purchased 24-acres of land to convert into an organic vegetable farm. With his background in conventional farming and a curiosity for science, Klehm wanted to try his hand at growing vegetables “as close as nature intended it” as possible.

“We started the vegetable farm to teach our three kids work ethic and introduce areas of education to their lives that only come with hands-on work from growing a crop and harvesting it to then selling it at a farmers market a couple of times a week,” he says.

With a specialty in heirloom produce, the family soon gained a local following for their produce, which includes zucchini, potatoes, garlic and basil to name a few, with their tomatoes holding the most notoriety.

A few years into the enterprise, Jones was picking up an order of tomatoes for his family and asked Klehm about his soil health program.

“After taking soil samples and assessing the soil profile – we had some areas with compaction and a surprising variety of soil types for 24-acres – we started to do some test strips to try different cover crops, min-till and no-till to see what worked. We scaled it gradually to where the majority of the farm is in cover crops today and we’re trying our first year of interseeding vegetables into standing cover crops,” says Klehm. “Cover cropping has had an amazing impact on our soil, reducing ponding issues in areas that historically had poor drainage and improving the overall soil structure.”

As the vegetable enterprise took off and Klehm watched his three children, Corynn, Reese and Khai, take away so many positive skills and experiences from their involvement, he saw another area of growth for his oldest son.

“My oldest was terrified of bees so when thinking of how to help him get over this fear, we enrolled together in a beekeeping class with the Southeast Iowa Beekeeping Association,” he says.

That spawned everything, says Klehm. Not only did his son overcome his fear of bees, but it would eventually benefit the farm’s vegetable output immensely.

Keeping the bees at home

Whenever a bee leaves its colony in search of food, it increases its risk for contracting a disease that it could bring back and wipe out the entire colony. It also opens the bee up for becoming exposed to crops that have been freshly sprayed which can be harmful. Wanting to reduce the amount of loss his colony was suffering and better reap the benefits of having bees on his own crops, Klehm realized he was going to have to find a way to keep his bees as close as home as possible. Jones and GO SEED had also been doing some research into cover crop management to support pollinator habitats and worked with Klehm to find a solution.

“The key to building a beneficial habitat for bees is to provide a constant food source which can be achieved by using a cover crop mixture with differing blooming dates so there was constantly something in bloom,” explains Jones. “On Cory’s farm, we fall planted a mix of annual clovers with different blooming dates and spring planted crops like phacelia, buckwheat and sunflowers to bloom after the annual clovers are done.”

To say it was a success is an understatement. Not only were the bees staying on the farm and not traveling for miles in search of food, but his crop yields were seeing the benefit of improved pollination. While Klehm notes he never created a thorough scientific trial with controls and variable measurements, anecdotally, he attributes the bees staying at home to a 30 percent increase in crop yield, with his tomatoes seeing the biggest benefit.

“At one point in time we had 3,000 tomato plants and were pulling 400-500 pounds of tomatoes every other day,” he says. “I’ve never seen plants with so many tomatoes. It was unreal.”

From a beekeeper’s perspective, the new approach was supporting the colony like never before.

“We had swarms three times, which only happens when your population is exploding so the bees divide themselves to start a new colony with a new queen. I had never had it happen before,” explains Klehm. “Along with the growing population, the colonies were extremely healthy and producing more honey in 30 days than my first hive did in a year.”

Treat bees like livestock

While crop diversity is important to provide bees with a continual feed source, the crop must also meet a bee’s nutritional requirements to keep it healthy and productive, says Jerry Hall, director of research for GO SEED.

“Bees need at least 20-25 percent pollen crude protein, with a colony consuming between 55-122 pounds of pollen per year, and have required values of 10 different amino acids,” explains Hall. “We need to think of pollinators more as livestock and plant ‘forage’ to match up to their needs from both a timing and nutritional quality. Not all pollen is of the same quality.  Most often it will take more than one type of forage to provide all the nutritional needs.” 

For example, sunflowers, what most would think is good food for pollinators, only have 13-19 percent crude protein, while the likes of balansa clover, white clover and hairy vetch average around 25 percent.

The game-changer for Klehm’s colonies was the introduction of high protein clovers, which exceeded both crude protein and amino acid requirements, providing excess nutrition.

The success experienced at Klehm’s farm is not unique, with a 2016 trial by NRCS-CIG seeing success in the conservation of bee pollinators when integrating clovers into pastures in western Oregon.

Planting a mix of 22 different plant species at a rate of 4-5 pounds per acre across four ranches, trial and control pastures were monitored every 1-2 weeks for two years. In the first year, 16 species of native bees were observed in the seeded pastures and only three in the control. The following year, 22 species of native bees were found in the seeded pastures and 10 were found in the control.

Integrating Pollinator Habitats Into Agricultural Systems

Whether it’s a vineyard, orchard, livestock ranch or commodity crop farm, there is a lot of opportunity for any agricultural system to integrate pollinator habitats without disrupting the production of their main enterprise.

To identify which cover crop species are flowering in their area, Hall recommends producers start by making a chart (see Pastures for Pollinators example) that outlines blooming dates so mixtures can be planned to provide consistent feed.

“A great resource is pasturesforpollinators.com, which has a blooming chart of common cover crop species. While the dates of flowering can change from year to year based on climatic conditions, the order of flowering remains fairly consistent,” says Hall.

While it is essential crops reach maturity to provide pollinators with food, this may present a challenge to row croppers who need to terminate a cover crop before it goes to seed. Management of the pollinator crop also needs to be done with bees in mind, avoiding pesticides and limiting herbicide use.

“Some farmers may be able to let cover crops grow longer by planting early with strip-till or rows that winterkilled. Perennial clovers are also an option, with ongoing research on white clover showing potential,” explains Hall.

Management friendly options include planting pollinator cover crops non/low productive land like gullies, terraces, borders, waterways and woodlands.

“Creating productive pollinator habitats don’t have to disrupt your system or take up huge areas of land,” adds Jones. “Get creative and look at areas of your farm that could do better as something different.”

Opportunities available

For farmers and ranchers looking to improve pollinator habitats, there are a number of opportunities available. If they wish to host hives, a good first step is reaching out to local beekeeper organizations.

There are also several government funded conservation programs through the likes of NRCS that can provide producers with funding.

“Pollinators play such an important role in the success of commercial agriculture and the world’s food production. No matter what type of system you operate, it is directly impacted by pollinators and directly impacts pollinators,” concludes Klehm. “No matter how big or small of an acreage you have, it is our responsibility as food producers and environmental stewards to support these vital organisms.”

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email laura@abccomms.co.uk

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9 Pieces Of Cover Crop Advice For Ag High School And College Graduates

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Six years into her career, Sarah Houin looks back on her academic journey to offer cover crop advice to upcoming high school and college graduates interested in working in the cover crop industry

cover crop advice for students from Sarah Houin
Six years after graduating from Purdue with a degree in agronomic business and marketing, Sarah Houin has found herself working for Co-Alliance in Argos, Ind. Still close to her college days and past the point of being an entry-level employee, she has a lot of advice to offer high school and college students as they approach graduation.

It’s been six years since Sarah Houin walked across the graduation stage at Purdue to receive her diploma for a degree in agronomic business and marketing.

A farm kid from a cattle, hog and row crop family enterprise in southern Indiana, present day finds Houin as a crop consultant with a specialty in cover crops for Co-Alliance in the northern part of the state.

While in many ways her career is just getting started, she’s amassed a notable amount of experience since leaving her hometown 10 years ago through building a college resume to gain relevant work experience to landing her first job straight after college graduation.

As high school and college students prepare to graduate and think about their future careers, Houin has nine pieces of advice to pass on.

Cover Crop Advice For Ag Students

Don’t feel like you’re locked into your major – or school

A self-proclaimed nature lover, the environment has always been a passion of Houin’s. This made it a natural fit for her to attend the University of Indiana following high school to study environmental sciences – or so she thought.
 
“When deciding on majors and schools, I thought going the environmental route was something I wanted to do without the boots on the ground farming component of it all,” she says. “But something I quickly realized within my first semester was how much I missed the agricultural industry. In environmental sciences, you’re talking about agriculture in some areas of work, but you’re not really involved in it wholeheartedly.”
 
As Houin points out, moving away from home and going to school is already a huge transition, so students shouldn’t stress if they feel like they’ve made the wrong decisions in their study area as they get familiar with their new life chapter.
 
“I finished out my first year and then transferred to Purdue to study agronomic business and marketing. I loved the change to Purdue and the agricultural classes they offered – changing direction was the right choice,” she says.

Diversify your class schedule

Differing from her original path of environmental sciences, Houin’s degree choice was a result of not knowing exactly what she wanted to study.
 
“My degree was basically in agronomy, so very heavy in chemistry classes with a few marketing classes mixed in,” she says.
 
While marketing is not something she would have typically gravitated towards, she found the diversity to be a surprisingly useful area of education. This has led her to advocate for students to not stick strictly to their major curriculum and look for classes that offer practical and useful skills that can be translated into different aspects of life.
 
“At the time, a few of the marketing classes felt like I was just going through the motions, but they made me start thinking outside of the box and thinking more creatively,” she says. “This has been very beneficial to make me more marketable when working on the sales side of things later in my career.”

Try to get a job during the school year linked to the industry you want to go into

Even if a student is in a fortunate enough position to not need to work while in school, Houin strongly advises everyone to try and get a part-time job related to their industry to start gaining work experience in that field. For her, this looked like working in a genetics lab sorting corn samples and working as an agronomy teacher’s advisor.
 
“When it comes to landing internships and jobs post-graduation, work experience is essential. Gain as much experience in your field as possible to set yourself apart from others,” she says. “While I wasn’t doing any high-level stuff, I started to build a record of being a dependable employee and experience in different areas of the industry. This helped me get a leg up on opportunities at a younger age because I was 20-years-old with three years of relevant experience in agriculture.”

Take internships

“Classes and getting decent grades are important but internships are priceless for hands-on learning,” says Houin.
 
The first internship is typically the hardest for college students to get due to having limited work experience and many ag companies prioritizing juniors and seniors to find future employees. Houin was able to get her foot in the door by leveraging a relationship with the local Co-Op to scout fields for the summer. The following two years, she secured summer internships with Dow and Cargill based on previous work experience and being open to temporarily relocating out of state.
 
“At that age, moving out of state can push people outside of their comfort zones – but that is a good thing! Aside from it creating more opportunities for work experience, you learn so much more about yourself and what you are capable of,” she says.
 
Houin also advises students to not be too particular about what internships they will and won’t do.
 
“I took part in Cargill’s crop scouting program, which wasn’t the most glamorous job, but I learned so much practical information. This led to Cargill offering me a job once I graduated,” she says. “Don’t be rigid about location and internship responsibilities. This is a priceless opportunity for you to gain real-life work experience and for a potential employer to test you out.”

Network

As part of internship programs and industry related jobs during the school year, Houin encourages students to build a network of professionals and fellow students to keep up with since many job opportunities occur through word of mouth.
 
“Also, join field-related organizations at your school and put yourself out there – you have nothing to lose!” she says.

Broaden your horizons

Especially for in-state students, when a student attends a school in the same or similar type of area they grew up in, it is easy to have a narrower focus on how things are done. For Houin, her eyes were opened and her mindset changed after studying abroad in Europe and seeing how different parts of the world farm.
 
“This was an amazing experience. I was able to see the challenges and benefits of the different climates they had and what their opportunity limits were. What struck me is that they are making a living on fewer acres by incorporating more diversity – which is something that stuck with me,” she says. “It showed me that there are a lot of opportunities to separate yourself and your operation from the rest by not just growing yellow number two corn.”

Learn to think for yourself

In the same line of broadening horizons, Houin advocates for students to listen to their professors and keep up with what is happening in the industry, but to form their own opinion and thought process on matters.
 
This is where her journey into cover crops really began.
 
I did a lot of my own research because whether you’re in college or working in the industry itself, things can be very one-sided for how everyone’s used to doing things because a lot of times it is working and producing food. But then I started to look at things differently – we need to produce food, but we need to do it in a way that is not deteriorating our soil,” she says.
Where Houin found success in this process was absorbing as much as possible from her classes and comparing it with research in different areas and practices implemented across the country in specific areas such as weed control.
 
“I took a lot of chemistry courses and learned a lot about chemical applications and would ask the question of ‘what are they doing differently?’ when coming across different operations. It is really important to learn both sides of the industry so you can know what you don’t like and what makes sense to you. You have to be able to argue each side if you want to be successful,” explains Houin.

Be realistic with your first job

Two common mistakes Houin has seen when students enter the workforce are taking whatever job pays the most or holding out on accepting a position to find their “dream job.”
 
“You may think you know what you want to do, but until you are doing it you have no idea. And even if you do land your dream job, it might not turn out like you think it will,” she says. “Accepting a job doesn’t mean you are signing up for 20 years at a company, it is ok to move on if it isn’t a good fit. But be mindful of the investment it takes for them to hire someone so don’t be flighty and hop from one place to the next.”
 
While a high salary figure will be attractive for many students graduating and being monetarily driven isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Houin advises students to weigh out the pros and cons before making a decision purely based on money.
 
“Are you going to be required to move a lot and if so, will that fit in with your personal life? Will you actually enjoy what you will be doing or are you simply in it for the money? These are questions to seriously think about because it won’t be sustainable if it makes you miserable,” she says.

Build and maintain a trustworthy reputation

In a tightknit industry, reputation can help pave the way to success as much as it can block opportunities. As high school students enter into college and start networking with professors, fellow students and companies during internships, Houin advises them to start to build and maintain a reputation for being reliable and trustworthy – and to continue to foster that throughout their career.
 
“It is such a small industry that you will continue to run into people you know in a variety of professional settings,” she says. “If you’re the kind of person that people know they can trust and rely on, it will open a lot of doors.”

The future is bright

For students interested in going into agriculture with a specific focus on cover crops and taking a more holistic approach to food production, Houin believes the future is bright.

“Things are changing and people are realizing there are ways to protect and improve resources while remaining profitable,” concludes Houin. “It’s not about taking all we can get, it’s about creating a symbiotic relationship; mutualism.”

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email laura@abccomms.co.uk

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Extend Your Grazing Season To Add Value To Cull Cows

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Using late-maturing clovers to extend your grazing season has more than just financial benefits

extend your grazing season with legumes
Livestock producers in southern and more mild regions of the US still have time to extend their grazing season. For fall planting, a mixture of cool-season grasses, including annual ryegrass and small grains, with legumes will provide high quality, non-bloating biomass through the following spring.

Feed, especially during the wintertime, is the biggest cost of production for cow-calf operations. Therefore, we often see the cull cow market dive at this time of the year as producers haul open cows to the sale barn rather than feeding them for another year without a return. Historically, we see cull cow prices hold value from February to August, and then drop from October through December.

As cows are brought in from summer pastures and we enter the peak of the culling period, there’s still a window of time for southern and more mild regions to extend their grazing season to avoid the sale barn glut.
Dr. Rocky Lemus, a forage specialist with Mississippi State University Extension Service, is one of the leading experts in extending grazing seasons for beef farms in the south where feed costs typically make up 50-60 percent of the cost of production.

Below, he shares his insight into grazing platforms specifically developed to help producers take advantage of unsaturated market conditions.

Tools To Extend Your Grazing Season

For fall planting, a mixture of cool-season grasses, including annual ryegrass and small grains, with legumes will provide high quality, non-bloating biomass through the following spring.

However, varieties and species must be selected on the grazing platform’s unique environment since air and soil temperature, soil type, and moisture availability are going to determine which tools are best for an individual system.

For best germination and plant development, Dr. Lemus says planting should take place when soil temperatures are between 50°F and 65°F, which usually occur when daytime air temperatures are between 60°F and 75°F. Plant too early in summer conditions and plants may go dormant or die to exposure to fungal diseases – plant too late and they may have inconsistent germination and poor root development.

When selecting the best small grain pasture grass to include in the mixture, there are four main options for producers to choose from. Key traits are listed in an index from MSU in order of least desirable to most: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent.

Cereal Rye

cereal rye extend grazing season

The most winter-hardy option with the good grazing potential that starts in early fall and extends throughout the winter.

  • Excellent tolerance to low pH soils
  • Good tolerance to wet soils
  • Very good tolerance to drought
  • Very good disease tolerance
  • Very good grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,677 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi

Oats

oats to extend grazing season

Least winter-hardy option, with the most tolerance to wet soils. Early growth is high in protein and easily digestible.

  • Fair tolerance to low pH soils
  • Good tolerance to wet soils
  • Fair tolerance to drought
  • Very good tolerance to disease
  • Good early grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,693 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi

Triticale

triticale to extend grazing seaso

A cross between wheat and rye that retains the palatability of wheat and vigor of rye. However, it is not very cold tolerant, and seed can be difficult to obtain.

  • Good tolerance to low pH soils
  • Very good tolerance to wet soils
  • Good tolerance to drought
  • Very good disease tolerance
  • Good early grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,523 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi.

Wheat

wheat to extend grazing seaso

Dependable and adapted to a range of climates. Is very grazing tolerant and provides high quality forage.

  • Poor tolerance to low pH soils
  • Poor tolerance to wet soils
  • Fair drought tolerance
  • Good disease tolerance
  • Fair early grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,551 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi.

Adding a legume

legume extend grazing season

To get more bang for your buck in forage yield and quality increases, incorporating nitrogen-fixing and later maturing annual legumes such as balansa or berseem clovers will increase protein levels and biomass potential in the spring.

In 2018, Dr. Lemus measured forage biomass of oat, Lonestar annual ryegrass and wheat pastures which were broadcasted with FIXatioN balansa clover at a rate of 10 pounds per acre for two grazing periods of March 10 to April 9 and April 30 to May 17.

Wheat produced the most forage with 1,459 pounds DM per acre in period one, and 1,850 pounds DM per acre in period two. Oats followed with 1,278 pounds DM per acre in period one and 1,771 pounds DM per acre in period two. While the annual ryegrass mixture did see an increase from 1,218 pounds DM per acre in period one to 1,408 pounds DM per acre in period two, it produced almost 700 pounds DM per acre less than wheat.

According to Dr. Lemus, the biomass increase seen across all the cool-season grass systems was due to the later maturity of FIXatioN balansa clover, which provided a high quantity of forage into mid-May after the cool season grasses began to decline. Another good late-maturing option is Frosty berseem clover, which has similar physical and feeding characteristics of alfalfa, but boasts significant cold tolerance. When selecting one of these clovers, balansa provides greater reseeding potential benefits over berseem clover.

With both varieties bred to fixing high amounts of nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizer application can be dialed back to 25 units per acre to get the cool season grass going before the clover starts producing in early spring.

Just as important, the inclusion of clover has also had a positive effect on cattle performance. In a 2019 trial, cattle grazing mixtures containing 10 pounds of FIXatioN balansa clover with 60 pounds of small grains or 25 pounds of ryegrass were compared against a cattle grazing a monoculture of ryegrass seeded at 30 pounds per acre that received nitrogen.

Cattle on the control pasture of just ryegrass and nitrogen gained 330 pounds per acre. Cattle grazing wheat and balansa gained 318 pounds per acre, while cattle on the balansa and oat pasture gained 360 pounds per acre. The mixture with the greatest cattle performance was the ryegrass and balansa pasture that gained 437 pounds per acre. The ryegrass and balansa mixture also had the greatest return with a $112 per acre advantage.

Establishment and seeding rates

For seeding rates, small grains are uniform at 60-90 pounds per acre when included in a mixture of annual ryegrass at 15-25 pounds per acre. Balansa clover and berseem clovers both have very small seeds and should be included at 3-5 pounds per acre and 5-10 pounds per acre, respectively.
If broadcasting, seed rates should be at the higher end of the spectrum and can be spread with fertilizer, except for nitrogen. To increase germination, lightly disk soil beforehand.

When no-till drilling or planting into a prepared seedbed, seed rates can be dialled back. No-till drills should be set to plant about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch deep for good seed to soil contact.

If anything, consider overseeding legumes

If colder days are quickly approaching and limiting the options you have for this year, at the very least, overseeding existing pastures with a legume is an effective and quick way to give forage production an extra kick come springtime.

With a little strategic planning and the use of species and varieties chosen based on unique environmental challenges, there’s huge potential to put more dollars in your pocket by having marketing flexibility. So, rather than your forages running dry and cows going to market at the same time as all of your neighbors, you can cost-effectively hold on to them until price conditions improve.

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email laura@abccomms.co.uk