By Kate Proctor
Many farmers have a goal of leaving their farms better than they found them. Growing cover crops is one tool that farmers have to help them achieve that goal. The Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) has launched a Cover Crop Leaders Program to help farmers who are experimenting with cover crops – providing both financial incentive and technical support through the program, which will run until the spring of 2024.
The program undertaken by the MVCA plans to support farmers who are taking steps to incorporate cover crops for the first time, or to improve their existing systems. Eligible farmers in the MVCA watershed will enjoy a $15/ac incentive up to 150 acres if they are experimenting with cover crops in combination with reduced tillage techniques.
In order to be considered for the program, farmers must be experimenting with new cover crop mixes or techniques, establish the cover crop and leave the residue over winter, use no aggressive full-width tillage in the crop rotation, must be willing to share their experience with others by participating in outreach, and must be willing to have temporary signs installed if fields are visible from the road.
Priority will be given to farmers who will commit to using cover crops in their operation for two years, farmers who are minimizing soil disturbance and maintaining residue cover throughout their rotation, and to projects that are more likely to sequester carbon.
Over the centuries, cover crops have played many roles – from improving soil health, compaction, and structure, to protecting crops from pests and improving water quality. Cover crops are defined in the Ontario Cover Crop Strategy as “plants that are seeded into agricultural fields, either within or outside of the regular growing season, with the primary purpose of improving or maintaining soil quality,”
Cover crops grown have ranged from simple – red clover after wheat, to complex mixes that make fields look like a beautiful painting when all of the varieties start to bloom. Laurent Van Arkel is considered a cover crop champion. His goal is “to improve soil health by having living roots growing 365 days a year.” To meet this goal, he has spent many years developing and promoting innovative cover crop techniques and equipment, and regularly shares what he has learned by hosting visitors to his farm and making presentations across North America.” •https://www.ontariosoilcrop.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Ontario-Cover-Crop-Strategy_May-3_Final-v3compressed.pdf.
Ontario farmers participated in the 2020 Ontario Cover Crop Feedback Report which sought to answer questions about the benefits and challenges observed with growing cover crops. Farmers representing 107,900 acres who grew cover crops in 2020 in almost every county and district in Ontario completed the survey. The majority of respondents (91 percent) reported benefits from growing cover crops. These benefits included improved soil health (68 percent), reduced erosion (59 percent), and increased soil organic matter (57 percent). Over three quarters of the respondents reported that these benefits were realized within three years of adopting cover crops.
Participants also included 211 farmers across Ontario who did not grow cover crops in 2020. The farmers identified barriers to adopting the practice as additional costs (41 percent), lack of equipment (36 percent), late harvest of cash crops preventing planting (24 percent), and shortness of the growing season (23 percent).
The Midwest Cover Crops Council is comprised of a group of many people interested in soil health and sustainable agriculture including farmers, non-governmental organizations, commodity interests, and those in academia. Their website is a great resource to learn about cover crops. Several recipes tailored to geographic areas are included on the website at https://mccc.msu.edu/.
Recipes specifically for Ontario included on the site give a detailed, step by step outline that includes planning and preparation, summer and fall work, time of planting, planting method, as well as the recommended varieties to meet to objectives of the farmer. One recipe for corn following wheat is a simple one using red clover. The benefits of this can help improve corn yields, promote better soil, and provide a nitrogen credit.
Another recipe describes the method to use for planting corn or soybeans after wheat. This mix involves growing a mix of oats and radish, both of which are winter killed, which makes it a fairly low-risk mix. This is used to help control perennial weeds, minimize erosion, build soil structure, and reduce compaction.
There is also a selector tool on the site that helps farmers learn more about which types of cover crops might fit their operations and meet their goals. The recipes and other information provide producers who are new to cover crops a plan to help see how the practice can work on their farms.
MVCA will begin accepting applications June 13, 2022. To apply contact Ben Van Dieten for an application at bvandieten @mvca.on.ca or 519-335-3557 ext. 245. Contact MVCA to get on the project mailing list or check their website for updates. Applications will be accepted until October 2022, or until all funds are allocated. If oversubscribed, priority will be given to projects meeting the above mentioned criteria. ◊