Cover crop use on the Prairies not well known

Saskatchewan producers examine a fall rye cover crop that was emerging in the spring.  |  Robin Booker photo

Prairie farmers want more information about cover cropping: its benefits, best variety choices and agronomy.

Callum Morrison, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba, learned that much and more from year one results in a three-year project.

In 2019, Morrison surveyed 211 farmers who have grown cover crops. In 2020 he wants to double the number of respondents and he launched year two of the Prairie Cover Crop Survey on Oct. 1.

“This year it’s going to be a lot larger and essentially what we’re trying to do is see where cover crops are being used, create a baseline for how many acres are being grown,” said Morrison.

He hopes to learn which cover crops are most common in each province and which cash crops are most commonly used in rotation, among other data. By also targeting farmers who have never grown a cover crop as well as those considering it, he plans to discover what concerns and goals people have about the practice and what research would be most helpful to any cover cropping plans.

“I think that will be very interesting, to see if reservations match up with the problems that the actual cover-croppers have experienced.”

Morrison particularly wants higher participation from Alberta and Saskatchewan in this year’s survey, since 50 percent of the first year respondents were in Manitoba, in part because most U of M contacts are in that province.

One year of data shows oats are the most common cover crop across the Prairies in general but in Alberta the top choice is clover and the second is oats.

Alberta was also the outlier in choice of cash crops in relation to cover crops. About 30 percent of Alberta respondents grew spring wheat after a cover crop. In the other two provinces, oats was the most common choice.

Across the Prairies, Morrison found 82 percent of the 211 respondents had grown a cover crop before 2019 and 31 percent had used them for more than five years. The most common reasons for doing so included building soil health, improving seed and soil biology, improving nitrogen availability, weed suppression and erosion control.

Full results from 2019 are expected to be available in November and subsequent results will be made public in coming years.

“We’re not just doing this for our own sake. It’s really something I think people in Western Canada need,” said Morrison.

Last year’s respondents expressed the need for more information on the kind of cover crop that would work best in their particular area and the need to quantify the benefits of the practice.

Other key findings from year one:

  • Sixty-six thousand acres of cover crops were reported by the 211 respondents.
  • Sixteen percent of those grew cover crops for the first time in 2019.
  • Half of the full season cover crops were grown in Saskatchewan.
  • Twenty-five percent of respondents were organic growers.

The 2020 survey can be found here:

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