Last year was a dry growing season for many, and while we can’t turn on the spigots run by Mother Nature, there are some practices that can help growers take advantage of the moisture that is available. At the inaugural Wisconsin Water and Soil Health Conference, producers shared their experiences with cover crops in extreme weather conditions during a panel discussion.
Brad Clark, a dairy farmer from Bagley, Wis., commented on how cover crops improve their soil moisture levels. “I believe with cover crops, we have tremendously increased the water holding capacity of our soil,” he said. “That’s the moisture we survive on all year long.”
Andy Bensend, a crop grower from Dallas, Wis., farms 4,000 acres and has been active in experimenting with practices like strip tilling and cover crops. He noted that their soils with growing cover crops tend to not get saturated.
“When we get a rain event in the spring, we are in those fields much quicker,” he noted.
He pointed out that even though those fields are not saturated, they tend to stay moist. Last summer, they roller crimped a rye cover crop, and even though it hadn’t rained in months, Bensend noticed that under the rolled down rye, the soil was not dry.
“I think we really reduced the evaporation off those soil surfaces,” he speculated.
Bensend noted that for some, planting cover crops requires a change in mindset, but he is a believer.
“It’s a win-win,” he said of the many positive aspects of cover crops. “The benefits of moisture are just the tip of the iceberg.”
The panel did touch on the importance of termination timing when it comes to cover crops, especially in dry conditions.
“I think we are going to be shorter on water than last year. We pulled a lot from deep down this year,” said Brent Petersen, who works for the Brown County Land and Water Conservation Department in northeastern Wisconsin. “It’s going to be pretty important to pay attention to the weather forecast, and getting rid of the cover crop early this year may be beneficial.”
That’s because cover crops can compete with other crops for nutrients and, particularly in dry conditions, valuable soil moisture.
“The cover crop is not a marketable crop, so don’t compromise the crop that is paying the bills,” Bensend advised.
Clark agreed, noting the importance of termination timing not being too early or too late. “Timing is critical,” he said, “and timing this upcoming growing season will be even more critical than last year.”