Cover crop succeeds and grows in Alta. fields

Andy Kirschenman has subscribed to Steve Groff’s webinar since the beginning. The farmer from Medicine Hat, Alta., said he generally catches it live to make the most of the two-way exchanges.

Kirschenman said he’s picked up a lot of information to help his farm, but there haven’t been any great revelations because he had already adjusted his farming methods to take better care of the soil.

“I find it very interesting to be involved in this webinar with a bunch of other like-minded farmers from so many parts of North America. I think what we gain from the webinar is an attitude and an open mind about what we can do,” said Kirschenman in a phone interview.

“We try to use as many cover crops as possible on our farm, but it’s really difficult with our short growing season. We understand the universal principles of soil armor, living roots, reduced tillage and diversity but it’s hard to do it right.

“We work mainly with intercropping and companion crop, growing two cash crops together. Or we grow a cash crop along with companions that will go unharvested. The one I’ve used most is canola with sweet clover. The sweet clover stays a little lower so you can combine the canola and leave the clover to grow as a green manure the next year. We spray it off and seed into the residue. We pretty well stay away from tillage completely on this farm.”

Scott Gillespie runs an agronomic consulting service in Taber, Alta., working on cover crops with potato growers. Potatoes are grown on light soil and southern Alberta often experiences strong winds, a perfect recipe for soil erosion.

Gillespie has subscribed to the Cover Crop Innovators webinar for more than a year, tuning in live during winter and viewing recorded shows during his busy season.

“I’ve always had an interest in cover crops and soil protection, but joining Steve’s (Groff) group gave me the opportunity to learn more. There’s not a lot of information on the topic, so it’s hard to find out about research other people are doing,” said Gillespie in a phone interview.

“One of the main things I’ve learned is to start out small and simple. If your experiment is too complex and has too many factors, you won’t be able to discern which factors are making the difference. If you start out with a cocktail mix of 12 species, you’ll never figure out which ones are doing the work. Ultimately, you may end up with a variety of species in your cover crop mix, but build that complexity slowly so you’re sure that each new plant is making a contribution.”

Gillespie’s clients are nearly all irrigated potato growers, and post-harvest soil erosion is their biggest soil management challenge. Once the potatoes are dug, the exposed soil wants to blow away.

Gillespie said he’s focusing on establishing the cover crop as quickly as possible after harvest. Still in the early stages of finding out what works, he has been using spring wheat, barley, winter wheat and fall rye. The seed is broadcast on the freshly disturbed soil, and harrowed in if time and equipment is available. Irrigation water is available, so failure of the cover crop does not occur.

“Our first priority is figuring out the best way to get a cover crop down right away. Then I’m concentrating on growing cover crops throughout the whole cycle to help build up organic matter content, build up the soils. Perhaps we’ll even try seeding them before the potatoes are seeded.”

He said there are potato growers other than his clients who are putting cover crops down after the harvest. So far this practice is mainly confined to the early season potatoes that come off in August.

“There are a lot of cover crop species other than the few obvious cereals that we have to start working with. I think farmers are a lot more interested in cover crops today than they were just a couple years ago. The people I’m working with are more inclined to try new things and make new technologies work for them.”

In addition to agronomic consulting and cover crop research, Gillespie also publishes a monthly newsletter and produces podcasts.

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