Wheat & More....Or
of wonderful things have been said about cover crops over the past few years.
But when I look at the data, all I see is that cover crops cost, they don't pay.
other words, planting cover crops in semi arid climates is a sure-fire way to
lose money--even in good years. But in bad years like we're having right now in
western Kansas, the moisture they use will cost you dearly in terms of wheat
other hand, if you're one of those farmers who are sick and tired of paying so
much income tax to the IRS, this is a really good way to get even. If you
plant cover crops, you will make less profit. Less profit means less income tax.
the olden days, K-State ag economists wondered about some farmers and their near
fanatical attention to weed control. If one poor lonely little weed poked its
head above ground, the Big Red One was called in to obliterate it. Some of these
farmers were even spraying 3 times and more for post harvest weed
really strugglling on this one. What's the difference between those weeds which
try to sneak into our post harvest or fallow fields and us actually going out
there and planting cover crops that do the same thing as the weeds--use
observation, though, of area wheat fields planted behind cover crops, the
current drought provided a severe stress test. And these wheat fields look
absolutely horrible. The cover crops used a huge amount of the moisture that
could have been used to save the wheat. I'm also looking at other fields
currently in cover crops that are literally dying because of drought stress. And
if we don't have rain later this summer, the wheat that will be planted on those
fields will face a very steep uphill battle.
Promoters of cover crops paint a pretty
picture of all the good that cover crops can do. They produce nitrogen, they
trap fertilizer trying to get out of the root zone, they create pores in the
soil and break up hard pans. They create organic matter, they condition the
soil and reduce soil compaction while suppressing weeds. Some of these farmers
also claim their wheat yields are going up because of the cover
are all highly desirable objectives. So what's wrong with cover crops? Well,
nothing, except at the end of the day, you lose money growing them--sort of like
investing a dollar and getting nothing back. Or worse.
Granted, these western
Kansas K-State researachers say cover crops help control erosion though more so
with wind than water erosion. But lead researcher John Holman also raise
questions about the profitability of cover crops as well as questions about the
effect of cover crops on yields of subsequent cash crops.
crops can be planted in the fall in new wheat stubble or next spring. Generally
they are terminated around June 1 with the hope that later rains will replenish
the moisture they've used prior to planting wheat that fall. Another variation
of this is to allow the cover crops to grow further into the season, then
harvest it for hay, for instance. Thus, instead of this being a cover crop, it's
now a fallow alternative. Wheat is then planted that fall.
short term economics of cover crops are not favorable. (See chart). Out of 13
treatments and combinations of cover crops, every one of them lost money--from
$35 to over $80/acre.
researchers point out, however, that if some of the treatments were used as
fallow replacements instead of cover crops, they were able to make some money
with about a third of the treatments. The rest continued to lose money. The
highest net profits were where winter triticale was grown by itself or with peas
or lentils and harvested for hay. Even then, though, allowing the crops to grow
further into the fallow period resulted in lower wheat yields. Cutting triticale
for hay resulted in wheat yields being reduced by 5.5 bushels per acre. Grain
pea reduced wheat yields by 7 bu/acre. Too, if triticale is harvested as hay,
you radically increase the soil's susceptibility to wind erosion. A key point is
that cover crops just don't pencil out economically. To give yourself any hope
whatsoever of making money, you have to do something with them like either hay
or graze them.
researchers say with legumes, you will produce some nitrogen. However, the high
cost of seed more than offsets the N contribution from the legumes. Growing your
own seed would help, but failing that, it's more economical to simply apply
nitrogen fertilizer than to try to benefit from the nitrogen contribution of
legume cover crops. Others say they like using deep-rooted covers to go after
deep nitrogen. However, wheat roots, which go down 6 feet themselves, will do
the same thing. They add that cover crops do not increase wheat
researchers also point out that fallow replacement crops should be selected
based on winter survivability, among other factors. Many proposed fallow
replacement crops will not perform in western Kansas.
summary, I think what the 4-year-old boy tells us about cover crops is true:
"The king has no clothes".
| Vetch Vetch/Trit Lentil
Lentil/Trit Pea Pea/Trit
Trit Lentil Lentil/Trit Pea
Pea/Trit Trit Fallow
Return/acre -$81 -$60 -$37 -$38 -$50 -$45
-$59 -$35 -$39 -$53 -$47