Some farmers in the upper Midwest think growing cover crops is a challenge. Well, try Montreal, Canada.
While at Commodity Classic this week, I ran into Mike Verdonck who farms 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans in rotation near Montreal, Canada. Our conversation led to the topic of cover crops, and he told me that he started using cover crops three years ago on a small scale. In that short amount of time, he's learned a lot about his soil, about biodiversity and about the impact cover crops can have.
Why did you start using cover crops?
“It was a soil health issue. And looking into soil health issues got me into cover crops by talking with consultants and people who use cover crops. And using them has made an impact in this short amount of time. We've seen better results in biodiversity, healthy bugs, fewer diseases, less compaction,” Verdonck said.
What cover crops do you use?
“Cereal rye is the base of all our cover crops. From there, we try to blend in some other varieties, depending on rotation and soil problems. For compaction issues, we use rye and radishes. For disease problems we use oats. If we need nitrogen we use peas or vetch.
We're doing a lot of tests and still working on it."
How has chemical use changed?
“Everything starts with the soil. If you have a problem, it's not really a problem, it's a symptom. If you have a pest or disease, deficiency, it's a symptom. So to fix the symptom and fix the soil.”
Has there been an impact on yield?
“There's been a significant difference. Healthy plants and healthier soil has led to higher yields. More water infiltration, less compaction. The combine travels easier. Fuel consumption decreased. Field ends are always compacted like hell; they aren't any more, they're part of the field.”
Are cover crops just a trend?
“Biodiversity is part of the soil health puzzle. Using cover crops creates that environment. It's not a one-size fits all. You need to find what's right for your farm and location."
What's your advice to others contemplating cover crops?
“My advice: See how the soil reacts in the woods, and try to recreate that. You have to create an environment for the biodiversity. We need to preserve our soils so they can communicate with the plants.
"The message that needs to be passed is that this doesn't come in a jug. You have to get back to farming. You have to learn about and understand your soil.”