Glenn Bauer, Regan, N.D., has had good luck using cover crops to convert Conservation Reserve Program acres to cropland. Yields have been good, and costs have been low, he says.
Two years ago Glenn and his sons, Dave and Steve, began converting a field that had been in CRP for 20 years. They didn’t want to work the ground. The Bauers have been no-tilling since 2003 and were concerned that tillage would destroy the soil structure that had developed while the field had been idled.
First, the Bauers cut and baled the CRP grass. Then they ran a disk over the field three times, with the discs just barely touching the soil surface to smooth out the mounds made by gophers, badgers and other burrowing animals. After disking, they harrowed and rolled the field. Then they no-till planted field peas and rolled the field again.
The multiple passes with the disk, harrow and land roller “really smoothed out the field and didn’t cost very much,” Glenn says. They used about 1 gallon of diesel fuel per acre.
• No-till farmer uses field peas, cover crops to convert CRP land.
• The cover crop mix boosts the soil’s biological activity.
• Alternating species is good for soil health and crop yields.
Peas a good fit
Field peas were a good choice for the first crop after CRP, Glenn says. The field had been mostly bromegrass, which is a cool-season grass. Field peas are a cool-season broadleaf. Field peas also produce their own nitrogen and add N to the soil. Most crops yield more when following field peas in the rotation than other grain crops.
After harvesting peas in August, the Bauers planted a cover crop mixture that included field peas, millet, buckwheat, sunflowers, corn, radishes, turnips and sweet clover. The cover crop grew to be about a foot tall before the first hard freeze.
In spring, the Bauers no-tilled Roundup Ready corn into the cover crop residue. They put down 5 gallons per acre of 10-34-0 with the seed, and after planting, they applied 75 units of N per acre with a stream bar with sprayer in the liquid form of 28-0-0. The corn yielded 84 bushels per acre.
“It was an excellent yield for us,” in central North Dakota, Glenn says, “especially when you consider that we only put down about $45.50 per acre of commercial fertilizer.”
Cover crop jump-start
Jay Fuhrer, Burleigh County Soil Conservation District conservationist, suspects the cover crop jump-starts mineralization of the residue. The district has seen similar results on other farms.
“We think cover crops encourage the growth of bacteria, protozoa and other living things in the soil,” Fuhrer says. “They improve the biological health of the soil” and that produces higher yields at lower costs.
This article published in the May, 2010 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.