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Thinking cover crops? Try tritacle.

02/03/2014 @ 10:16am

Floyd Hardy had just one expectation for his spring-planted  winter triticale cover crop: suppress weeds in soybeans. As an organic farmer, herbicides weren’t an option, and he knew the rocky soil would create problems at harvest, based on experience combining soybeans on the field years ago.

On July 12, Hardy’s plan appeared to be working when he and soil consultant Glen Borgerding walked through his Brainerd, Minnesota, field. The foot-tall triticale was turning brown as 8-inch-tall soybeans began to blossom. Most of the wild radishes present in the field before spring tillage were gone. 

Later in the summer, though, matters changed. After nearly two months of no rain, everything dried up. Hardy salvaged the crop by baling what he could. 

He’s not discouraged. “I know it will work,” Hardy says about his weed-suppression idea, but he has a few changes in mind for 2014. If it works, the technique may become another useful tool for conventional and organic farmers. 

Try rye?

Hardy got the idea to grow triticale when he saw the soybeans in his friend’s 4-foot winter rye crop under irrigation. He was impressed with the beans’ growth and the way the rye suppressed weeds. 

He wasn’t as impressed after harvest, when his friend brought over the soybean splits for him to screen. 

“It was a mess. There was rye in the beans, and it took me six weeks to clean,” he says. 

Rye has become a popular cover crop in Minnesota, says Mark Zumwinkle, sustainable agriculture specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). 

Growers plant rye in the fall to reduce soil erosion and to put organic matter back in the ground.

“If we get rye in the understory of corn, we know we can no-till in soybeans in the spring without a yield hit,” Zumwinkle says. “If it’s planted after silage corn is taken off and the landowner has cattle, the spring rye is wonderful for calving on and reducing the vet bill. The mother grazes high-value food and has living bedding.”

What growers have learned not to do is let the rye grow 5 feet tall and seed out. The rye needs to be killed or removed before that happens.

That’s why Hardy decided to try triticale. By planting it in the spring, he knew it wouldn’t vernalize (develop seed heads) and it would die on its own. 

“Growing triticale in the spring makes sense,” Zumwinkle says, “and it’s not competing with the crop for water.” 

Triticale also has an allelopathic effect by inhibiting weed-seed germination, says Borgerding, owner of Ag Resource Consulting, Inc., Albany, Minnesota. Winter rye, which is a better allelopathic crop, could also be planted in the spring, he says. Hardy used triticale because he had the seed and wanted to test his idea.

Plant, plant, and pack

Hardy applied for and received an MDA Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant to test his idea. 

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