Choosing the Right Cover Crop

 

Playas benefit from practices that result in good soil health. Improving the health and quality of the soil is one of the easiest and most effective ways producers can increase crop productivity, hence profitability, while benefiting wildlife and improving the environment. No-till practices, plus the planting of cover crops, mean less soil moves as runoff into playas during rain events.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

This time we’re talking about cover crops — ground cover often consisting of a variety of plants — sown following harvest of the cash-crop, rather than letting ground lie fallow.

“From cover cropping, we’re looking at a forage base that can be utilized by the producer to get return while trying to build the soil back to a level previous to when we had all the tillage.” Chad Remley at Salina. He’s the state soil scientist for Kansas, at the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Tillage introduces air, which gets all the microbes going. We’ve lost a lot of organic matter. That organic matter is what was helping us hold the soil together. Over time, we see a reduction in infiltration,” a reduction in the ability of the soil to hold water, “more water erosion and wind erosion. And we don’t need sediments moving into the playa lakes, or any body of water.”

Playas benefit from practices that result in good soil health. Improving the health and quality of the soil is one of the easiest and most effective ways producers can increase crop productivity, hence profitability, while benefitting wildlife and improving the environment. No-till practices, plus the planting of cover crops, mean less soil moves as runoff into playas during rain events. In eastern Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, you get 25 or 40 annual inches of rainfall, it’s just a no-brainer. But you talk to a producer in the western end of those states, where 17 or 19 inches might be the average… and which those producers haven’t seen in this three or four year drought.

“It’s not raining. So, why should I plant a cover crop? It’s a tough one, because it isn’t raining. And precipitation is what drives all the chemical and physical processes that we need to happen, so you have to weigh those processes with our current state. If you leave the ground bare, you’re out of luck, period.”

So we’re learning that we ought to plant cover, between cash crops. What kind of cover? I called Candy Thomas. She’s the NRCS state agronomist for Kansas. She says, it depends on what the producer’s trying to achieve… “whether it’s adding nitrogen to the system, scavenging nitrogen, trying to improve your aggregate stability, or just add in more organic matter.”

Candy says there are three groups, three functional groups of cover crops. “The broadleaves — the brassicas, all the turnips and the lentils. Then we also have the warm season grasses, cool season grasses. And then the legumes, which is the clovers, the vetches, and anything that is producing nitrogen.”

She says NRCS recommends a cocktail that will hold seed cost down to $20 a pound or less. They recommend a mix of the three groups, and recommend a minimum of five plant species.

“Try to add more diverse crops in there as you can possibly, monetarily, stand. You know how they always say mimic native range. Well, there’s a bunch of different types of plants in native range.”

Again, the question arises, what cover crop recommendations do you have for the producer in the west, whose biggest challenge is lack of moisture. Candy Thomas says, the producers who are cover cropping often are making it a component of a cattle operation.

“Introducing cattle into the operation, utilizing the feed on the field, not harvesting it, because that manure component acts as a really good driver in that soil ecological system.”

She says those producers who are running cattle on the cover crop are planting barley, oats, rye. “They’ll have triticale in it — some collards, rapeseed, radishes (those oilseed radishes), canola or some of the other mustard.”

Your local NRCS office can help you develop a soil health management plan and find conservation programs that work for you.

Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Original broadcast: July 2014

Posted: July 10, 2015
Topics: Playas, Soil Health