Ranchers discuss cover crop practices

Home|Feature Story, Local News, News|Ranchers discuss cover crop practices

SHERIDAN — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, cover crops have been in practice since ancient civilizations depended on the ability to enhance growth of production as they cultivated for food.

Native Americans knew the benefits of diversity when they planted corn, beans and squash, which is what spearheaded the concept called “Three Sisters.”

Three Sisters is the foundation of effective synergy that producers learned about on the cover crop tour hosted by the Sheridan Community Land Trust on June 27. Unlike cash crops, cover crops are a specific plant grown for the benefit of soil health rather than the traditional practice of crop yields.

They are typically used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, build soil fertility and promote biodiversity. Cover crops typically consist of mixes of legumes, grasses, brassicas and broadleaves planted in the off-season before the field is needed to grow full yields.

Producers continue to push boundaries and develop new effective synergy practices to eliminate herbicides and tillage.

Tylor Jones, a University of Wyoming graduate student, conducted an experiment by creating multiple plots that used various cover crop practices. His plant mix consisted of 12 different plant species and used various till and no-till practices depending on the plot.

Jones knows all too well the risk producers take when they choose to implement cover crops.

“There’s the potential to completely use or lose a whole year of production so my main question was, ‘If you’re losing that whole year of production, are cover crops making up for it in any way?’” Jones said. “Yes, they’re making up for it in soil health but that doesn’t pay your bills.”

It’s still early in Jones’ experiment and he’s seen success in the cover crops that he has raised. His no-till plots looked comparable to the traditional tilled plot sitting right next to it. It’s unclear if Jones’ experiment was planted at the right time or in the right year with the abundance of moisture Sheridan County has seen, or if this demonstration confirms northeastern Wyoming is a viable candidate to incorporate cover crops in more operations around the state.

Even if it is hard to quantify the value of soil health, it’s a vital first step to begin implementing cover crops within an operation, said Caitlyn Youngquist, University of Wyoming extension educator. Field observations and various lab tests are vital to understanding effective cover crops and the ideal microbial diet within the soil.

“The carbon to nitrogen ratio is really important when you’re trying to determine if nitrogen will be released from a particular organic residue or not,” Youngquist said. “The ideal microbial diet comes in about 24-1 or 25-1.”

Nitrogen is considered the backbone of a system of a plant because large amounts play vital functions and it can be the limiting factor in proper crop development. It is an essential element to all amino acids, which are building blocks in plant proteins that develop plant tissues and hold the genetic code in the plant nucleus. It also plays a significant role in photosynthesis, and with sufficient nitrogen, a plant will experience high rates of photosynthesis and will experience significant growth, according to Greenway Biotech. To use carbon as food, microbes need the nitrogen pulled out of the soil to process the carbon correctly.

Crop residues consisting of manures, composts, roots and root exudates or glomalins will morph into the soil organic matter which produces 45-50% carbon, resulting in respiration of soil organisms. Instead of tilling the farmland, a farmer will plant during the offseason, thus feeding the soil directly by leaving organic matter to run a full carbon cycle and utilize a full harvest.

The tour stopped at two different ranches in northeast Wyoming that have both been practicing cover crops for almost a decade. Both ranchers said they were wildly impressed with the progress they’ve made and hope they see more practices through the state.

“I think the places we’ve stopped are somewhat a testament they can work but I think we’re still trying to figure out how it fits into the industry,” Jones said.

They are typically used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, build soil fertility and promote biodiversity. Cover crops typically consist of mixes of legumes, grasses, brassicas and broadleaves planted in the off-season before the field is needed to grow full yields.

Producers continue to push boundaries and develop new effective synergy practices to eliminate herbicides and tillage.

Tylor Jones, a University of Wyoming graduate student, conducted an experiment by creating multiple plots that used various cover crop practices. His plant mix consisted of 12 different plant species and used various till and no-till practices depending on the plot.

Jones knows all too well the risk producers take when they choose to implement cover crops.

“There’s the potential to completely use or lose a whole year of production so my main question was, ‘If you’re losing that whole year of production, are cover crops making up for it in any way?’” Jones said. “Yes, they’re making up for it in soil health but that doesn’t pay your bills.”

It’s still early in Jones’ experiment and he’s seen success in the cover crops that he has raised. His no-till plots looked comparable to the traditional tilled plot sitting right next to it. It’s unclear if Jones’ experiment was planted at the right time or in the right year with the abundance of moisture Sheridan County has seen, or if this demonstration confirms northeastern Wyoming is a viable candidate to incorporate cover crops in more operations around the state.

Even if it is hard to quantify the value of soil health, it’s a vital first step to begin implementing cover crops within an operation, said Caitlyn Youngquist, University of Wyoming extension educator. Field observations and various lab tests are vital to understanding effective cover crops and the ideal microbial diet within the soil.

“The carbon to nitrogen ratio is really important when you’re trying to determine if nitrogen will be released from a particular organic residue or not,” Youngquist said. “The ideal microbial diet comes in about 24-1 or 25-1.”

Nitrogen is considered the backbone of a system of a plant because large amounts play vital functions and it can be the limiting factor in proper crop development. It is an essential element to all amino acids, which are building blocks in plant proteins that develop plant tissues and hold the genetic code in the plant nucleus. It also plays a significant role in photosynthesis, and with sufficient nitrogen, a plant will experience high rates of photosynthesis and will experience significant growth, according to Greenway Biotech. To use carbon as food, microbes need the nitrogen pulled out of the soil to process the carbon correctly.

Crop residues consisting of manures, composts, roots and root exudates or glomalins will morph into the soil organic matter which produces 45-50% carbon, resulting in respiration of soil organisms. Instead of tilling the farmland, a farmer will plant during the offseason, thus feeding the soil directly by leaving organic matter to run a full carbon cycle and utilize a full harvest.

The tour stopped at two different ranches in northeast Wyoming that have both been practicing cover crops for almost a decade. Both ranchers said they were wildly impressed with the progress they’ve made and hope they see more practices through the state.

“I think the places we’ve stopped are somewhat a testament they can work but I think we’re still trying to figure out how it fits into the industry,” Jones said.

 

By |Jul. 18, 2019|

About the Author:

Kiley Carroll is the summer 2019 intern at The Sheridan Press. She is a rising junior at the University of Wyoming, where she studies ag communications and journalism. Born and raised on a ranch outside of Ranchester, she is eager to write about the rural side of Sheridan County.

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