Cover Crops for Western Canada

Recently the seasons aren’t as short as they used to be, and they tend to be wetter, leaving farmers wondering what to do with all that excess moisture.  That’s just one reason why cover crops might make sense, says Yvonne Lawley, a cropping systems researcher at the University of Manitoba.

Cover crops are being used as green manure for organic production, as catch crops to prevent nutrient leaching, to improve soil organic matter and nutrient cycling, break up hardpan, protect soils from erosion and to increase the productivity of grazing systems.

 But Lawley said the soil health benefits of cover crops go beyond those traditional objectives.

“If we think about the whole chain of microbes that exist in soil, they’re really being fed by the inputs and cycling of nutrients within the agro-ecosystem. If we can have plants growing for a longer period of time, capturing more sun, we can provide more input through either organic matter or exudates from roots that feed the fungi, bacteria and nematodes that then feed the higher trophic structure like earthworms.”

The recent shift in thinking is about when this activity occurs during the season.

“We are now thinking about the shoulder season as our period of intensification, and what we are going to do with that period before we seed our crops and after we harvest them in the fall,” Lawley said. “We have other crops and other windows where we can think about how to intensify our use of those resources to feed this soil food web.”

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