Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thinking about a Cover Crop Trial in the Garden

I've been interested in cover crops for a while, first planting them in my garden at least fifteen years ago.  I originally started out with a 'deer food plot mix' that I planted in the fall which was a mixture of winter wheat, winter rye, oats, crimson clover, ladino clover (white clover), alfalfa, and Austrian winter peas.  Planting that cover crop mixture improved my garden almost overnight, based on how the garden and cover crops grew and looked afterwards.

Because of my garden experiences with those 'deer food plot mixes', I've always had it in the back of my head that if cover crops worked in a garden, then they would also work in a field, but I've never really tried to scale up the idea for a number of reasons, mainly drought and the cost.   

While I've been pondering cover crops over the years, I've read and re-read everything I could find online from people like Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, David Brandt, and Gail Fuller, who all speak a lot about the benefits of cover-cropping (it's easier for you to search for more info about them than it would be for me to list a bunch of links, so start google-izing them if you're interested, but I'll dig up some links if anyone asks).

At the same time, I also happened to find the Sweet Bay Farm blog, which is a blog written about planting cover crops to improve the soils on a farm in Maryland.  I tend to be skeptical whenever I'm listening to an 'expert' talk about anything, but reading this blog and about her results made me start thinking even more seriously about cover cropping some of my cropland.  Experts might tend to stretch the truth at times, but 'ordinary people' usually don't, so I tend to be more likely to believe the results from people that aren't self-proclaimed experts.  

Over the years, I've planted both pearl millet and sorghum-sudangrass (or haygrazer) as hay crops on the farm, which would have been technically sort of, but not really a cover crop experiment. But, last summer I planted a simple mixture of pearl millet, sorghum-sudangrass, and grain sorghum as a hay crop.  This mixture was about as simple as one could be since it was only three different warm-season grasses, but it grew slightly better than the sorghum-sudangrass that I planted at the same time (which was sort of surprising).  That got me to thinking that if I had added in something like cowpeas, buckwheat, or sunflowers and grazed it instead of baling it, I'd have really seen some soil building results.

Since most agriculture is regional (what works in Iowa might not work in Texas), I re-read everything I could find and decided that Gail Fuller in KS was farming in an area pretty similar to mine and I read about a cocktail he has been planting after wheat harvest that looked like it might work for me.

Basically, it's a combination of different warm season grasses (millet, sorghum, etc), warm season broadleaves (soybeans, alfalfa, etc), cool season grasses (winter wheat, oats, etc.), and cool season broadleaves (winter peas, canola, etc.) with about 3-5 lb. of sunflowers (the black oilseed kind, not the eating kind) thrown into the mix, and it's all planted at the same time right after the wheat is harvested.   The idea is that the warm season plants will frost-kill in the fall, allowing the cool season plants to start growing, then cattle can graze the field over the winter.  In a good year, there is also the possibility of harvesting the sunflowers in early fall as a cash crop.  So, you can get the benefits of a cover crop, grazing, and a possible grain harvest.

Since it's difficult to double-crop grain sorghum after wheat and get a harvest for a number of reasons, if it's feasible I would much rather plant a cocktail like this, graze it over the winter, and then plant grain sorghum the following spring.  It would be less risky, there would be no need to bale hay or feed it, and if it goes right, a sunflower harvest would be a bonus (it might be a trick finding somewhere to sell them though).

With this all in mind, I'm going to plant a mixture of grain sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass, soybeans, black-eye peas, winter wheat, maybe some oats, crimson clover, turnips, and sunflowers in a test plot.   Since this is a test, and I'm using what I have on hand  (okra would be a substitute for something like sunn hemp, etc.), I'm also going to throw in some okra seed, flax seed, dill seed, and whatever other seeds I can come up with.

I'm thinking that I'll plant at a rate of about 8 lb. of grain sorghum, 8 lb. of sorghum-sudangrass, 10 lb. of soybeans, 10 lb. of black-eye peas, 60 lb. wheat, 3 lb. crimson clover, 1 lb. turnips, and 5 lb. of sunflowers per acre.   That sounds like a lot of seed, but since I'm only planting a small garden spot (2000 sq.ft.), I'll only need about a twentieth of those amounts to plant the entire area.

For a true trial of the whole idea, I'll have to wait to plant my mixture until a time that's closer to wheat harvest, but I thought if I posted this now it might help me remember to actually do it, while giving other people some ideas of their own.

I'm also thinking about and/or planning to plant a simple cover crop mixture of grain sorghum and sunflowers in an area of a wheat field that has poor drainage as a combination dove food plot, 'wet spot' dryer-upper, and cover crop, but that's a topic for another day.


  1. It would be nifty to scale up cover cropping... if a person can figure out the logistics. I like the idea of using up old seed by scattering it as a cover.

    1. There are plenty of farmers cover cropping and it isn't really that hard to scale up, it's just a matter of figuring out the most cost effective or affordable seed mixture, and changing my attitude about cash flow (which might be the hardest part).

      With a little tweaking, I could probably plant that cover crop cocktail for somewhere around $35/acre (depending on exactly what I planted and how much). I could probably easily winter a cow on between 1 and 2 acres by grazing that field, instead of feeding 3-4 bales of hay in the same amount of time, which would save me somewhere around $100/cow (depending on what the hay cost, etc.). Grazing a winter-killed cover crop wouldn't be much different from when I graze grain sorghum stubble over the winter and the cover crop would make a much better type of forage.

      Besides that, an ordinary drill would be used to plant the cover crop cocktail, so there isn't any problem with planting.

      The only thing I need to work out is not planting some sort of cash crop like grain sorghum or wheat, and the idea of not baling hay if I plant something like millet or haygrazer.

      In a garden, I'm almost never growing a winter crop, I never have to think about not planting a cash crop, and I don't have to worry about having enough land, so there's always an open window to plant some sort of cover crop.

    2. There's an interesting YouTube video about cover crop cocktails at:

      It doesn't include any sort of livestock grazing, but it's basically the same idea.

    3. I rarely ever saw cover crops in the corn/soybean fields up north, and I always wondered why. I assumed it had to do with the cost, in addition to there being a short window (if any) to put in a cover crop before winter. I suppose there are more options with the longer growing season in other regions.

    4. In corn/soybean country it's a problem having enough time after harvest to plant a cover crop before winter comes, sometimes something like annual ryegrass is flown into a field before harvest.

      Killing the cover crop in the spring in time for planting can also be a problem.

      A lack of livestock to graze the cover crop limits your options, sky-high land costs make it difficult to take land out of production for even a short time to let cover crops do their work, and short-term leases make it hard to justify improving land for the long-term.

      I have a farm that I rent on a yearly basis, and I can't or won't do a lot of things on it that I'd do on land that I either owned or controlled for a longer period of time.

      If I was farming in an area with the potential for 200+ bu. corn and no livestock, I doubt if I would be thinking about growing very many cover crops.

    5. That's interesting... lots of factors come into play. I lived for years in the heart of corn/soybean country and never did fully understand why things were the way they were.

      It does make a person wonder what the future will hold. I imagine when the organic matter levels begin to seriously affect productivity (as I understand it, we're still burning through the OM left from the prairies... although at a slower rate with no-till) the government will pay farmers to put in cover crops, similar to CRP payments. Or maybe large-scale biochar will be implemented, if it proves to be effective in the soils and climate there.

      Regardless... we visited family up north last fall, and it was stunning to see so many miles of black soil after being gone so long.

    6. You can get away with a lot more tillage if the ground freezes during the winter.

      There are already programs that supposedly encourage the planting of cover crops, converting to no-till, implementing rotational grazing systems, etc. like CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program) and EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program).

      I've looked into them at the local NRCS office, but all the rules, paperwork, and guidelines associated with them always irritate me. The CRP program doesn't work the way it should work, and I don't think any other government program will work to fix any other problem that supposedly exists. Governments and officials tend to think that a farm is a farm is a farm, when my farm might be completely different from the one right across the road much less one that is in MN.

      I need flexibility and a lot of options in any plan I make on the farm because every year is different, and most government plans are designed to limit flexibility and options.

  2. Yeah time is a big factor up here. By the time my parents get the crops off, they go immediately into working the corn ground to prepare if for planting next spring and applying fertilizer to the bean ground to get it ready for corn next spring. There is a small window before the ground gets too cold and won't seal up properly to hold in the fertilizer. In the spring, once it dries out, we pretty much start planting. Back when we used to do more wheat, we used to have cover crops so we could harvest the wheat and then later a crop of hay off the same ground.