A Saskatchewan farmer is creating a how-to website for cover cropping in Western Canada.
Kevin Elmy, who runs Friendly Acres Seed Farm in Saltcoats, Sask., set up a website this winter called covercrops.ca. It provides a list of seed retailers selling cover crops and the types of species for sale.
Cover crops, which are used to boost fertility and soil health for subsequent crops, have become popular in parts of the United States but have yet to gain traction in Western Canada.
Many prairie producers remain skeptical or unsure of how to use cover crops, but interest is building.
“There are grain producers calling me up and saying, ‘how does it work and … how do I do it,’ ” Elmy said. “ ‘What type of blends, what does it cost … what am I going to get?’ … There are going to be (more) experiments out there.”
Patrick Fabian, who runs Fabian Seed Farms in Tilley, Alta., is also getting more questions about cover crops such as tillage radish. He hopes prairie farmers take a go-slow approach because thoughtless adoption could doom cover crops in Western Canada.
“I spend most of my time with tillage radish clients, talking them out of buying it,” he said.
“It sounds stupid because I’m in the sales business, but I’m more concerned about getting it right for our clients…. It’s very easy to spend money on seed and not get a return on it…. Everybody wants to have healthy soil. At the same time, you can’t take (soil) to the bank. You have to pay your bills.”
Cover crops are often planted as a cocktail of vetches, fababeans, millet, clover, radish and many other species.
U.S. growers often seed a cover crop following the harvest of an annual crop, but that model isn’t a good fit for Western Canada because there isn’t sufficient time for a newly seeded crop to germinate and develop before freeze-up.
Prairie farmers will need to devise a different system for a shorter growing season, Fabian said. “We’re at the infancy of cover crop (adoption).I’m hoping this isn’t going to be a (fad) because it does offer a lot of sustainability…. Approach with caution, ask lots of questions and do it on a small scale.”
Elmy agreed, saying grain producers need to identify objectives such as building organic matter, mitigating soil compaction or improving soil biology.
“When someone calls up and says, ‘I want to grow cover crops,’ the first question I ask is ‘why?’ ” Elmy said. “Without a plan, it’s just shooting in the dark.”
Elmy has used six years of trial and error to formulate a system where cover crops are now 25 percent of his acres.
“We were one in four (years) for my canola rotation, so we’ve replaced all of our canola (with cover crops).”
He is also experimenting with relay cropping, in which a cover crop is planted before an annual crop is harvested.
Elmy believes winter wheat will be an excellent partner for cover crops. Producers could aerial seed a cover crop in July and combine the winter wheat a few weeks later.
The cover crop would have a few months to grow in the late summer and fall to impart its benefits to the soil.