A field day in southern Saskatchewan focused on the benefits of cover crops for organic and conventional farms
By Leeann Minogue
Southern Saskatchewan farmer Cody Straza has an ambitious goal: “zero till organic farming.”
To get there, Straza will rely on cover crops as a large component of his management plan. “There is a nitrogen benefit from cover crops,” he said. “Even if you don’t incorporate.”
Straza and his family hosted a cover crop field day at their organic farm, Upland Organics, near Wood Mountain, Sask. on July 5.
Out in the field, Straza explained his plans for a quarter section of yellow clover. First, he said, he’ll use a roller crimper to roll down it down. Then later this season, “we’ll come in with a disc drill.” He plans to seed a cover crop blend into the mulch, hoping that the crop will grow, then freeze before the plants set seed. The plant stand should catch snow in the winter.
“If it doesn’t go down over the winter,” Straza said, he’ll use a roller crimper or a land roller to get the field to point where he can seed a cash crop into the mulch in the spring of 2017.
“If it all works out, I’d like to seed a flax-chickpea blend.” Straza believes intercropping these two varieties will result in reduced weed and disease pressure.
To harvest his flax and chickpeas, he says, “I’d love to have a stripper header, so I could maintain standing stubble.”
But as farmers know, things don’t always go as intended. “That’s the plan from today,” Straza said. “Tomorrow it might change.”
Cover crops are also a key element of the management plan on Garry Richards’ farm in northeast Saskatchewan, near Bangor.
Though Richards is not an organic farmer, he has been focusing on soil health since taking a holistic management course in 2003, and has seen the benefits of cover crops on his farm. Now he enjoys sharing his knowledge of cover crops with other farmers.
“Cover on the land inhibits weed growth, slows evaporation, increases water infiltration, feeds soil microbes and moderates soil temperature,” Richards said.
Richards prefers to grow a “cover crop cocktail”— a mix of several varieties that usually includes red clover, hairy vetch, alfalfa, winter triticale, rye grass and other plants. He believes in blending a minimum of five to eight species, but usually 12 to 15.
Adding more varieties to the mix, Richards said, comes closer to mimicking the mix of species you would see in Nature, and lowers the risk of some varieties in a blend not growing well in a particular year.
Other ways Richards tries to mimic nature with his farming practices are to maintain diverse crop rotations and to never till the soil. “I’d love to be organic,” he told the audience. “But I just don’t want to till.” In lieu of tillage, Richards occasionally uses chemicals. “I’m trying to learn to farm without glyphosate,” he said. “But that’s hard to do.”
For farmers considering transitioning to organic production or to a more holistic management system, Richards says, “The biggest thing about getting started is getting started.” It won’t be easy, he says. “There are a whole new set of stresses and challenges.” But for Richards and his wife, he says, “it’s all about the next generation.”
Marla Carlson, Executive Director of SaskOrganics was pleased with the cover crop field day turnout. “We had 145 registered,” she said. “Lots of people drove two or three hours to get here.”
“It’s a very optimistic time in organic farming,” Carlson said. “Prices are high and demand is high.”