Farming Smarter is researching soil health initiatives over the next five years. With support and funding from Weston Family Foundation’s Saving Soils Program and RBC’s Tech for Nature grant, we will explore cover crops and roller crimping in southern Alberta.
We will complete two projects with this opportunity and test approaches to successfully establish cover crops. The first study investigates the interaction of cover crops and living mulch with subsequent crops. The second will be a look at the effectiveness of roller crimping at a variety of growing stages.
Each of these studies will take place on irrigated fields in Lethbridge, Bow Island, Taber, and Brooks. We will be researching 16 total site years, with the two projects each having eight site years each.
“We just completed our first fall trial for this project,” says Mike Gretzinger, Farming Smarter’s Agronomy Research Team Lead. “For the first year is always a lot to learn, we wanted to make sure we got everything in place and how we want it for the rest of the study.”
Strip Till Cover Crops
Each year of this project will include a fall seeded cover crop (at high and low planting density) followed by a subsequent spring seeded cash crop. Fall rye will be planted as a fall cover crop before dry beans in the spring and fall rye/ winter peas will be planted as a cover crop before corn and canola. The cover crops will be terminated by either strip tillage or herbicide and discing in the spring and grown on wide rows (15”).
Two planting densities will be used for the cover crops, a high and low density. This density influences the competition with the main crop, biomass production and weed suppression. Irrigation will provide the maximum likelihood of success for the inter-row living mulches, thanks to higher availability of water, sunlight, and nutrients.
Additionally, it will benefit from reduced soil erosion and will help retain vital nutrients and moisture. This can lead to better crops in subsequent years as the availability of important nutrients is increased.
We aim to provide practical tools and techniques for southern Alberta farmers to adopt and improve the quality of their crops. While fall-seeded crops add a heap of work during an already busy season, we hope the benefits make it worthwhile.
Cover crops being established at Farming Smarter in 2021
Roller Crimping Cover Crops
The second half of this initiative investigates the efficacy of roller crimping as a termination practice.
This method will reduce the need for inputs like seed pesticide and fertilizer. By eliminating the organic matter in-field, those nutrients are incorporated into the soil and made available to the subsequent crop.
Our main priority is to identify the best timing for fall planting and stage for spring termination.
“If you drive over grass, you don’t always kill it. To effectively kill the crops, we’ll need to time the right stage to run it over,” says Gretzinger.
We hope that roller crimping will help eliminate soil erosion, as the eliminated crops will remain in the field. With this simple layer of biomass, regional data from previous studies indicates a reduction in lost soil.
Our rotation for this project will be fall rye and winter oats planted as cover crops in August and September, which we be terminated to plant barley for silage in the spring. The cover crops will be terminated either by roller crimper or herbicide and discing.
Roller crimping done at a Farming Smarter field in December 2022
Participate in Saving Soils
Every fall, we will monitor the establishment of cover crops in both trials and measure the above ground biomass throughout the growing season. This measurement will include fresh and dry weights and include tissue sampling to measure the carbon and nitrogen content. Using these measurements, we can track the adaptability of cover crops and their potential soil carbon and nitrogen inputs to promote carbon sequestration.
Over the next five years, we hope to give southern Alberta farmers a better understanding of how they can save their soil. We look forward to bringing more updates on this study as our work continues. Currently, we have seeded our first year of fall crops and will begin roller crimping by mid-spring.
Stay tuned for further updates on this project or register for our Field School to see a first look at this project!