By Rachel Martin, Natural Resource Planner for The Nature Conservancy
I had been looking forward to it for months . . . the Cover Crop and Soil Health Field Day in Princeton, Kentucky. Seriously. There is no better, single thing we can do for our environment than to keep the land covered.
There is no better place to address that subject than at a meeting that includes a panel of farmers. They know their stuff. And these gatherings help farmers interact with others who have some “skin in the game”—people “get it,” who also believe in the benefits of cover crops. Together, we share ideas on how to best to work soil health into our work—whether it be farming or conservation.
This workshop began with a presentation by Dennis Chessman, from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Soil Health Division, who demonstrated outcomes of healthy vs unhealthy soils. Specifically, Dennis explained how healthy soils hold together in the presence of water, making it difficult for water and air to infiltrate the soil.
Conversely, unhealthy soils tend to fall apart, leading to increased runoff, flooding and pollution. For farmers, the lack of infiltration causes decreased water capture, which means decreased yields—a loss for farmers and the public who depend on a steady supply of affordable food.
Next, four farmers shared successes—and some failures—with regard to soil health. Vole problems represented a recurring theme. Once cover crops have been grown for a few years, voles realize what a great home that soil is and set up housekeeping there, causing all sorts of problems. One person reported that they had to disc their land to control the critters, which broke his heart, setting his soil health back with tilling. Another workshop participant suggested that voles could be controlled with predators like hawks and coyotes. Most expressed a need to use some sort of poison control and no one was happy with the situation.
In all, the discussion highlighted the fact that a farmer has to understand and commit to the benefits of soil health, even when doing so introduces new and unexpected problems. Less committed believers might likely give up!
Another hot topic covered at the workshop included when and how to transition from a cover crop to planting a field (known as termination). No one wants their cash crop to compete with the cover crop!
One farmer planted a cover crop that would die out over the winter (winter-killed). Another strip-tilled and planted the cover crop in between cash crop rows to cut down on competition. However, the majority of workshop participants planted rye (the hardiest choice) or a rye/radish mix and killed the cover crop with an herbicide application in early spring.
Although soil health is enhanced when cover crops can grow taller, the main benefit lies in preventing soil erosion and water infiltration over winter. As a result, cover height at termination is secondary; shorter heights allow the farmer to begin planting sooner.
After great morning discussions and lunch, meeting participants headed out to view cover crops in-field, courtesy of Jon Beaves and Jake Jones. Both of their fields have been planted to ryegrass.
Part of the discussion on our field trip included research conducted by the University of Kentucky Extension on the ability of annual ryegrass (not cereal rye, a grain) to break up fragipan layers (a dense layer of compaction that often limits the depth of soil plant roots can explore, causing water stress and decreased yields for farmers). The UK research is showing that ryegrass roots release a substance that dissolves the pan to make room for roots. This is ground-breaking work, as it has been the historic position that there was nothing anyone could do about fragipan soils—the farmer was just stuck with it.
During our visit, Jon Beaves and Jake Jones also addressed the challenges related to working on cover crops in between field harvests. Tending to cover crop—which do not generate income—can be a major hindrance, especially during busy harvest times. A farmer has to be really sold on planting cover crops to put in the extra effort. One solution? Farmers might graze animals on a cover crop during the winter before selling the animal, a win-win-win situation since the cost of the seed would be covered by the money earned.
This is why we gather! All in all, it was a great day to be out on the land and inside with colleagues learning about soil health.
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