Moore encourages careful consideration of seed mixes in cover crop selection
As farmers look for every opportunity to gain value from their cropland and find extra margins in their operation, Wyoming Seed Certification Manager Mike Moore comments that cheap seed is often a solution that provides more problems than it solves.
“To save money, one of the places people go first is cheap seed,” he says. “We get what we pay for, and if we plant a problem, we might plant things that are never going to go away.
Moore notes that cover crop mixes, in particular, may be comprised of cheap seed, which can create a myriad of problems.
Pressure for cover crops
Moore comments that cover crops have emerged as a hot topic in the farming world, and while they can be beneficial, he also encourages producers to carefully consider the impacts they may have on farmland.
“No one wants to ruin their soil or watch our soil wash downstream,” he says. “We have to consider cover crops when we’re thinking about our soil, but we also have to think through some things.”
Benefits like improved soil health and support of pollinator populations may result from planting cover corps.
Cover crops may provide many benefits in the right situation, but Moore also notes that they aren’t applicable in every situation.
Inside the mix
Many companies who sell seed have multiple mixes for cover crops available. Moore says that producers should carefully consider the components of the mixture they plant before planting cover crops.
“When we start looking at the mixes, we’re likely going to find a lot of things we’ve never heard of before,” Moore explains. “Sometimes, there’s also the option to customize a mix. That may be a good option for some people.”
As an example, Moore cites one producer in Park County who was growing sunflowers. He was encouraged to plant a cover crop as a companion to the sunflowers.
“He figured an 80 percent loss from the crop,” Moore says. “The deer and birds both impacted the crop heavily, where they hadn’t in the past.”
He further notes that the producer did gain some value by allowing cattle to graze after the meager sunflower crop was harvested but continues, “In some mixes, there are plants that have to be grazed only before frost or only after frost because they are toxic.”
“We really have to be careful when we throw a bunch of stuff together,” Moore says.
If producers are interested in planting a cover crop, Moore encourages them to do their homework before jumping in.
“If we decide to plant a cover crop, we can customize a mix,” he says. “In that case, we have to know what our goals are and have some idea of what will work on our ground.”
The long-term impacts of a cover crop and the specific species planted should also be considered.
“Many of the components in cover crops are hard-seeded legumes,” Moore explains. “They may show up eight years later in the same field.”
“If we are going to use a cover crop, we have to manage it appropriately so none of the species become a problem,” he says. “Even if cover cropping will work for the operation, keep in mind that there could be long-term impacts.”
Moore also emphasizes that some popular components of cover crops may pose a problem for neighboring fields, particularly for producers who are growing seed.
“We have some radish seed production in the Big Horn Basin,” he says. “It’s about 40 acres between three growers. The seed is going to Europe, and it’s worth a lot.”
However, radishes grown for seed must be isolated by three to five miles from other radishes.
“The main component of many cover or companion crops is radish. From a seed certification standpoint, it might present a problem to get the isolation for those guys growing for seed,” Moore comments.
Mustards may also present a problem from a control standpoint.
“One of the spring weeds we have that is hard to control is yellow mustard,” Moore explains. “It comes early and fast, and it can be difficult to get out of small seed and legume crops.”
Because mustard seed is very small, when certified seed is cleaned, it may require two to three runs through the equipment to remove mustard, which increases cost for growers.
“We have to remember that we get to share some of these things with our neighbors,” he says.
Moore also notes that it is important to look at the weed percentage and composition in cover crop mixes.
“When we buy seed, we have to look at the listed components on the label,” he says. “There can be a lot of weed seeds.”
Seed bag labels will list the percentage of weeds present, and while Wyoming law mandates that no more than two percent of seed can be weed seed, the small percentage can create big problems.
“We also have to look at what those weeds are,” Moore explains, noting that seed retailers should have the seed tests used to generate the label available. “When we look at the seed test, we can see what weeds we’re talking about.”
While common weeds like kochia that are easier to deal with may be less of a concern, there are other weeds, like mustard, that could be a big problem if planted.
“We need to make sure we’re getting something that will work for us and not cause a bigger problem,” Moore adds.
“Cover crops can be useful if they keep our soil and water home and provide a little cover for the fur and feather creatures we like to see,” Moore comments, “but I think we need to carefully consider what we are planting if we decide to go that way.”
Moore presented during the 2016 Weed Management Rendezvous held in Casper in late January 2016.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.