Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Grazing Cover Crops

Heifers grazing on cover crop in August

June 15, 2015 8:00 am  •  Sarah Brown, The Prairie Star(0) Comments

BALLANTINE, Mont. – Some years ago, farmer Marc Vogel began experimenting with using mixed seed cover crops as an alternative to leaving land fallow, the practice of leaving land uncultivated that’s been used for more than a century by farmers here to recharge the soil.

“It’s an old, old idea that’s coming back,” said Marc Vogel, 32, a fourth generation farmer, who works with his two brothers, father and uncle on their family farm and feedlot in Ballantine.

Vogel found that leaving land fallow boosted soil moisture, but had some harmful side effects: increased saline seep, nitrate leaching and erosion and decreased organic matter and microbiological activity.

“It doesn’t reflect how Mother Nature would have her system,” said his wife, agronomist Kate Vogel, 32.

Rather, by planting multiple plant species together to cover soil in the off season, a practice known as mixed seed cover cropping, Vogel could enhance the chemical, physical and biological properties of his soil to increase subsequent crop yields and protein.

The central idea is that certain crops perform certain functions, Kate said, so fibrous rooted crops, buckwheat and millet for example, might provide extra organic material and build soil structure.

Similarly, deep rooted crops such as forage collards and safflower might help break up a hard pan, bringing nutrients into the root zone and making them available in the surface for the subsequent crop.

In addition, the different flowering species like phacelia and sunflower attract pollinators and good insects, like ladybugs, that kill pests, like aphids.

But using mixed seed cover crops is only one element of improving soil health, Kate said.

Farmers, her husband included, are again employing some age-old principles to protect and insulate their soil: don’t till; increase residue cover; increase crop diversity and introduce livestock; and increase the length of time living roots are growing, she said.

“It is a new way of thinking of farming, but it is not completely out in left field,” Marc said. “But it’s a long term investment, like buying stocks and investing in your future.”

With the paradigm shifting to what they believe is a more sustainable model, the Vogels saw an opportunity.

“Cover crop seed was hard to get a hold of and there was not a lot of knowledge out there,” said Kate.

The husband and wife teamed up to form North 40 Ag, a seed and agronomy company, whose tag line is, “Beyond sustainable.”

Marc has an agriculture degree from Montana State University and years of farming under his belt. Kate has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy from Colorado State University, and worked for years as consultant with the oil and gas industry and, later, for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Their enthusiasm for cover crops runs deep. The pair married in a Ballantine cornfield in 2013, using cover crops – millets, sunflowers, safflower, radish and sorghum – for the bouquet.

The Vogels’ business, North 40 Ag, shares warehouse space with the Worden-Ballantine water and sewer district. They partner with Green Cover Seed in Nebraska, a company who gets much of its seed from Montana.

The Vogels create custom seed mixes to address their clients’ needs by using their personal experience and pairing it with a software program that factors in variables such as precipitation, number of frost free days, the carbon to nitrogen ratio, whether a producer has animals grazing, and the salinity of the soil.

North 40 Ag has moved more than 400,000 pounds of seed into Montana and Wyoming since March.

The seed cocktails, as the Vogels like to refer to their mixes, have gone out all over the state, but they use them on their land as well. At the end of May, Marc was preparing to put in two different warm season mixes designed to address different issues he’s facing on different parts of his family’s farm.

After a certain point, he’ll let his cows forage on the cover crop, who will return the favor with their manure, nature’s fertilizer.

Vogel has been using the mixed seed cover crops on his farm for five years, a decision he concedes requires, “a whole new level of management,” but says the benefits – increased organic matter, soil microbial activity, water retention and nutrient availability and decreased nitrate leaching and erosion – are hard to quantify.

“It’s not an overnight success story,” Marc said. “We’re looking long term.”

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