Taking the plunge can be scary but there are multiple benefits that can be gained, they say.
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The ability of cover crops to boost productivity attracted Dieter Gagelmans (left) to the practice. He’s taking over the dairy farm of Geoff Volkman (on right) and improving forage production is part of his business plan. Photo: Alexis Kienlen

Dairy farmers Dieter Gagelmans and Geoff Volkman decided to take the plunge into cover crops last year for a simple reason — to improve the farm’s productivity

Gagelmans, originally from Belgium, is taking over Volkman’s farm in a non-familial succession.

“I knew I was going to take on tremendous debt and the only way to get out of it is to have good production,” Gagelmans, who has farmed with Volkman for three years, said during a recent cover crops field day put on by the West-Central Forage Association and Leduc County.

“If you want to have good production, you need to have good forage. And knowing that the land here is not the best, I wanted to figure out a way to improve that.”

Gagelmans has been working with Cover Crops Canada consultant Kevin Elmy, a presenter at the event. Elmy introduced Gagelmans to a dairy farmer north of Saskatoon who had successfully converted his forage into cover crops, and they had numerous conversations.

Volkman was initially scared to take the plunge.

“Fear is huge,” he said. “Dieter was all for it. I told him, ‘I don’t want a disaster, find farmers who are doing this.’

“So he did, he found farmers who were doing it. That’s huge for farmers. It’s a totally different way of thinking.”

Gagelmans and Volkman said they’ve already seen huge improvements on the land.

“Last year was a really good success — I think we averaged 6.5 tonnes of silage an acre,” said Gagelmans.

The previous year, when the field was straight barley, they harvested three tonnes.

“You will see a lot of weeds because we are in that transition,” Gagelmans said as he showed the fields to attendees. “We kept doing it because we saw great results from last year.”

Last year, the duo seeded a biannual mix into winter triticale, sweet clover, chicory and alfalfa on one of their fields. They cut the crop last year, let it regrow, and then cut it again this year. They haven’t sprayed or desiccated.

“Early this year, we decided to cut it because we were short on feed. I seeded an annual mix into it, (so) there’s an annual mix growing beside the biannual mix from last year,” Gagelmans said. The annual mix includes Japanese millet, golden millet, common vetch, Italian rye grass, daikon radish, sunflower, oats and peas.

“Across the road, we seeded barley and peas and seeded clover and Italian rye grass as a cover crop, which we had good luck with last year, and no problem combining,” he said.

They used a no-till drill to seed.

“I don’t think it matters what you have to seed — your timing matters and your knowledge,” said Gagelmans, adding it is about getting through the trash.

Water infiltration has improved thanks to the different root systems of the various crops. Even though some areas of the field were wet, there was not as much mud.

He said he was a little worried about feeding the cover crops to cattle because they included lamb’s quarters and pigweed, “but we started feeding it, and the cows did awesome.”

It was also cheaper than feeding corn, he added.

“The fertility goes up and we had fewer sick cows, and the health of the herd is much better.”

Those additional benefits are important components of cover cropping, said Linda Gorim, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s ag department and Western Grains Research Foundation Chair in Cropping Systems.

“A cover crop is a crop that you grow, not for the yield, but so that you can harvest or get some other benefits from it,” she said.

Farmers around the world use cover crops because they need to improve their soils, said Gorim, who grew up in Cameroon and obtained her graduate degrees in Germany.

On the Prairies, cover crops have often been grown by organic farmers to fix nitrogen, especially in organic systems.

Gorim has been working with colleagues at the University of Manitoba (which has been running continuous organic field trials for three decades) to find out which combinations of cover crops work best on the Prairies and the best way to manage them. Researchers will use different timings to broadcast cover crop mixes and will look at what herbicides can be applied.

“Research has shown that cover crops are very efficient for farmers in other areas of the world,” said Gorim. “In a study at the U of Iowa, where they grew corn and rye grass, they found that in wet years, the cover crop doesn’t really show any difference. It grows and doesn’t compete with the main crops. They found when they had very dry years, there was resilience.

“One of the reasons you should use cover crops is because of that soil resilience that is built over time.”

Research from Europe, especially the Netherlands, has shown that combinations of cover crops are better than using one cover crop, she noted.

“I was very shocked when I came to the Northern Hemisphere and saw one crop on the farm,” she said. “That’s not a normal thing, but I know there is a push for higher yields, so farmers are always planting one crop.

“If we want resilient systems, then I think the way to go is to use combinations of cover crops.”

However, the trepidation cited by Volkman is a legitimate concern, she acknowledged.

“I know the research is lagging behind because nobody knows what to combine,” she said. “Farmers have a lot of research which is not widely shared by trial and error. There is need for us to find out what the optimal number of combinations would be for our systems.”


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