Manitoba researcher looks to explore cover crops

Yvonne Lawley of the University of Manitoba is leading a three-year study into the use of cover crops. Photo: University of Manitoba

By Robert Arnason
Glacier FarmMedia staff

Agronomists and soil scientists like to talk about cover crops.

At farm meetings and field days they tout the benefits of cover crops, such as reducing soil erosion, suppressing weeds and improving soil health.

All those claims may be valid, but are western Canadian producers actually using cover crops on their farm?

Yvonne Lawley, University of Manitoba plant scientist, is seeking an answer to that question. Lawley is leading a three-year study, essentially a farmer survey, to determine how many growers use cover crops, how many acres and why they use them.

“Right now, it’s just a Manitoba-wide project,” Lawley said in the lunch room at the Summit on Canadian Soil Health, held in early October at the Ducks Unlimited headquarters north of Winnipeg.

“But I’m sitting here wondering should this be a western project because there has been response from (other provinces).”

So far, Lawley has put out a couple of queries on Twitter and sent out emails, trying to understand what’s happening with cover crop adoption.

If we have some early adopters that are willing to sit down with (us), I would really like to know the why. – Yvonne Lawley

The definition of cover crops is imprecise, but generally it’s seeding a crop to keep the soil covered as much as possible. The crop, or cocktail of different species, could be seeded after the annual crop is harvested, during the growing season or seeded in the spring.

The plants may be harvested, might never be harvested or might be used for grazing later in the fall.

If growers just want to share how many acres of cover crops they have, Lawley is fine with that.

If they want to share more information, that’s even better.

“If we have some early adopters that are willing to sit down with (us), I would really like to know the why.”

Lawley has been studying cover crops for more than eight years, beginning as a PhD student at the University of Maryland.

Several years ago, when she would write grants to study cover crops, funding bodies would say no.

These days, funders and companies like General Mills are saying yes, probably because there is anecdotal evidence that farmers are interested in this practice.

“Something has changed … (but) what is changing and how much?” she said.

General Mills is partly funding Lawley’s survey because the company is emphasizing regenerative agriculture. This winter, the maker of Cheerios and Nature Valley granola bars said it would promote regenerative agriculture in North America and around the world.

Its goal is one million acres managed with regenerative ag practices, such as cover crops and diverse rotations, by 2030.

“We recognize that our biggest opportunity to drive positive impact for the planet … lies within our own supply chain and … to drive broader adoption of regenerative agriculture,” said Jeff Harmening, chair and chief executive officer of General Mills.

The General Mills’ policy won’t convince farmers to try cover crops tomorrow, but it is good news for proponents of regenerative ag.

Still, many farmers remain skeptical.

If 30 centimetres of snow falls in October, it’s tough for cover crops to grow and provide benefits.

While this fall has been snowy, wet and cold in most of Western Canada, many growers remain committed to cover crops.

Lawley and policy makers want to know what is happening because they need data to make decisions.

“These numbers mean a lot more to government bodies who are working on programming,” Lawley said. “My instinct tells me something is happening (with cover crops).”

For more information on the cover crop survey, contact Lawley at [email protected].

This article was originally published at the Western Producer.