Stories | December 22, 2017 | Read Time: 4 minutes
Improving Soil Health Through Cover Crops
Monsanto’s Gothenburg Water Utilization Learning Center in Gothenburg, Nebraska, is focused on helping farmers sustainably grow their crops with an emphasis on water utilization in the Great Plains environment where extremes in temperature, wind speed and precipitation are constant obstacles. The 324-acre research farm uses a three-pronged, systems-based approach in helping farmers manage drought through traditional plant breeding, biotech traits, and implementing agronomic practices in the field.
An important part of the research at Gothenburg revolves around no-till and cover crop practices and their impact on soil health.
No-till farming is the practice of leaving the previous year’s crop residue on top of the soil and allowing the next year’s crop to be planted directly into the remaining stubble. Doing this helps reduce soil disruption and erosion, which allows the soil to hold more organic matter full of nutrients as well as absorb more water.
In addition to no-till practices, many farmers are planting cover crops between their primary crops to provide soil cover. Over time, a cover crop regimen will increase soil organic matter, leading to improvements in soil structure, stability, and increased moisture and nutrient holding capacity for plant growth. Residue from terminated cover crops increases water infiltration and reduces evaporation, keeping water where crops need it and resulting in less moisture stress during times of drought.
Cover crops help return organic soil matter back to the Earth, and protect the soil from erosion.
“While cover crops can help water infiltrate the soil better and prevent evaporation that can rob the soil of moisture, they also utilize soil moisture to grow. If there isn’t enough rainfall in the spring and summer, the moisture taken by the cover crop isn’t replenished, which may result in lower yields for corn or another cash crop,” said Mark Reiman, Agronomist at the Gothenburg Learning Center. “We are still learning about the effectiveness of planting cover crops in this type of environmental system, and there is a great need for research into them.”
Researchers at the Gothenburg Learning Center have partnered with University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to study the impact of the use of cover crops with alternative wheat stubble heights in an environment with limited natural water resources like Nebraska.
Managing Wheat Stubble to Retain Moisture
Managing wheat stubble over the winter can help soil retain moisture. The accumulation of snow on fields becomes an important part of the ecosystem. As it melts, snow adds moisture to the soil profile. Fields that capture more snow melt are better able to grow a cash crop the following season.
“Moisture is our number one limiting factor in terms of yield. We are finding that not as much moisture is lost to drift and evaporation with taller wheat stubble. One of the impacts of taller wheat stubble is its ability to hold snow rather than letting it blow off a barren field,” explained Reiman.
Researchers are hopeful that the current study on wheat stubble will provide insight into how to effectively utilize cover crops in an environment with lower levels of precipitation.
When the wheat field at Gothenburg was harvested in July, one section was cut leaving the stubble tall while the other was cut at a lower height to simulate more common current farming practices. For added data, UNL is conducting the same study about 40 miles west of Gothenburg.
UNL’s results will be combined with the Learning Center’s outcomes, resulting in a stronger data set to analyze. An added benefit of the partnership is information distribution: UNL can reach producers through crop production updates and other publications, and Monsanto will post the results on its Learning Center website. The combined audiences provide a broad reach, educating more producers than either organization could alone.
The Gothenburg Learning Center is studying a variety of conservation farming practices, in addition to wheat stubble height. Strip tilling with cover crops, a comparison of rye cover crops, and different ways of seeding cover crops are all being tested.
“Producers want to learn more about them, how they can use them in their system, and what practices will make them successful,” said Reiman.
Farmers want to see data on integrating cover crops to determine if they make sense in water limited environments, and Monsanto’s Gothenburg Learning Center continues to be a resource for testing these and other sustainable farming practices.