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Thinking cover crops? Try tritacle.

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. 

“They were excited, and everybody was on board. I planned to try it whether I got a grant or not. But everything that could go wrong did,” Hardy says with a laugh.

He wasn’t able to fall-plow the 42 acres of pasture due to drought. Conditions were better in the spring when he plowed, disked, and cultivated in time to plant triticale on May 13. He planted rows 6 inches apart, at mostly 1.5 bushels per acre. Then it rained and rained – enough to create ponds for ducks and geese to swim in the field. By May 23, he managed to plant soybeans on high sandy ground in 12-inch rows at 190,000 seeds per acre. He followed up with a land roller the next day.

“The triticale was over a couple of inches tall. It looked awful when I rolled it, but it came back,” he says.

It was June 3 before Hardy was able to drill the soybeans into all but 5 acres of the field’s wetter portions. He upped the seed count to 250,000 seeds per acre. 

Hardy was pleased with the progress through mid-July.  However, there was little he could do when it didn’t rain the rest of the summer. He learned a few lessons for adjustments in 2014. 

“I think May 13 was too early to plant the triticale. Usually I plant beans around May 20 here. I plan to plant the triticale and then right away plant the soybeans, then roll it – plant, plant, and pack,” Hardy says.

He will also plant soybeans in 6-inch rows instead of 12-inch rows. The earlier-forming canopy will help nix early weed growth.“I could see that if the beans were closer together, they would have been more shaded,” he says.

Eliminating the cost of cultivation helped Hardy offset the $30-per-acre triticale expense, Borgerding says. Based on soil-sample testing, Borgerding recommended adding sulfur and lime. Hardy applied sulfur, but he was unable to add the lime due to all the rain.

Cover crops benefit all farm types

Borgerding notes that more and more conventional farmers are recognizing the value of cover crops for nutrient management. Cover crops also enable them to be proactive rather than reactive to field maladies. 

“Farmers know they need something,” Zumwinkle says. “One example, if you are in reduced-tillage situations like strip-till or ridge-till and then you have that high residue and high yields, that’s a good thing. You’ve got conservation-tillage. When you add the cover crops, they cycle nutrients, break up compaction, and deal with some of the issues that might be affecting your high-residue scenario. Farmers are really interested in that. That’s where they are looking to the cover crops to try something.”

He adds that, though the spring-planted triticale doesn’t add a lot of biomass to the soil, it has value as a cover crop for all types of farms –organic or conventional. 

“In mainstream cropping systems, you’ve got these extended periods where there’s nothing growing on the landscape, and it makes the soil microbial population really unhappy. The soil needs to have living and dying roots so that you are constantly feeding the microbial population,” he says. 

Some Minnesota sugar beet and potato farmers have started planting cover crops after harvest for that reason and to prevent wind erosion.

More Minnesota farmers are experimenting with cover crops to see what works in the state. The window after harvest can be narrow, Zumwinkle says, but there are still opportunities including aerial seeding and planting after silage harvest. 

The MDA grant program is always looking for new ideas, adds Meg Moynihan, with the MDA organic/diversification program.

“When we review these proposals, we’re looking for things that may or may not work. If we’re sure it’s going to work, why would we support it? We would just let the farmer do it,” she says. “It’s exciting to see what has happened with Floyd Hardy the first year, and it also points to why we like to fund things for two and three years so you have time to refine the system, have a different year of weather, move it to a different location, and see what would happen.”

She adds that public outreach – such as a field day – is an important aspect of the grant program.

“This program is funded with public dollars, and we feel very strongly about getting information about these projects out to the public so that other farmers can learn from them, too,” Moynihan says.

With a year of “everything going wrong that could go wrong,” Hardy looks forward to his second year.

“I hope to plant 50 to 60 acres,” he says. “The main thing I think is that the field should be well-tilled and black to start with, so I have a nice weed-free field.” 

Once he plants, plants, and packs, the only thing left to do is pray that Mother Nature cooperates.

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