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One on one with a cover cropper

Posted by David Sullivan | March 21, 2017

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

While at the 2016 Tilth Conference in Wenatchee, I was able to ask Jim McGreevy a few follow up questions after his session “Cover Crops in Production Agriculture”. Jim manages organic vegetable and seed production at Cloudview Ecofarm, and is a strong advocate for the use of cover crops to improve soil health.

Why do you include cover crops as part of your field management?

“We are dealing with a high erodible soil on the farm and our goals are primarily to improve soil structure and increase organic matter levels. Of course cover cropping is really important for nutrient cycling on the farm as well.”

What is one thing you wish you would have known before you started using cover crops on a larger scale?

“One major thing we learned early on was planning for allelopathic effects following grain cover crops, rye especially. Timing is key, and planting a small seeded vegetable crop like carrots after turning in rye is a disaster in the making!”

Other presenters have mentioned eliminating nitrogen inputs through intensive cover cropping – Have you been able to reduce your nitrogen inputs through your winter cover-cropping regime?

“That has absolutely been working for us on our scale. We are planting the same varieties of triticale and vetch as Brad Bailie over in Connell. We are able to plant our squash crops without additional inputs, although we’ve had to supplement on some fields that haven’t gotten enough attention from cover cropping.”

What are you planning to change up next season with your cover cropping?

“We are looking into longer-term annual weed management with perennial covers that also address soil building while increasing habitat for nearby fields.”

You use specific plantings to manage the ecology and enhance beneficial insects in your field – what are some current plantings and future plans?

“We’ve started out with hedgerow plantings by reserving certain zones on the periphery. They were initially planted for wind erosion prevention, and as they mature they provide habitat for predatory insects and animals. As for annuals, in the beginning it was real trial and error. I’ve got a decent annually reseeding insectary mix now that I seed with a drill. We are still trying to find which native trees and brushes will work out long term.”

What are some beneficial annuals that have been successful so far?

“The phacelia and alyssum have been working quite well for us. We can frost seed those in February over here and they come up quite early. I’ve been able to drill them as well as broadcast successfully. I’ve moved to a mix as the phacelia will mature early while the alyssum is slower to establish underneath, and I’ve included both clover and arugula as well. This gives me some early flowering that creates a good understory for the clover and phacilia. I can mow off that early flowering letting the alyssum and clover then take over later in the season with the alyssum flowering all season long.”

Cover cropping and soil health management were common themes at this year’s Tilth Conference. My take away from the presentations as well as my conversation with Jim is that cover crops serve numerous roles in a farming system. Making a list of cover cropping goals is important before selecting individual species, and doing thorough research (especially in organic systems) on possible pathogen “green bridges” to the following cash crop is crucial. While incorporating a cover-cropping regime into your farming system can have great soil health benefits the increased demands on management need to be recognized, especially in systems with more complex crop rotations. Check out the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources for recent related WSU cover crop research.