Soil School: Making cover cropping work in northern Minnesota

Benjamin and Mikayla Tabert have integrated cover crops into their farm near Red Lake Falls, Minnesota.

Cover cropping is a rare practice for much of North America’s Great Plains, as a general lack of moisture has limited their use on a large scale.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t producers using cover crops successfully in rotation. In this episode of the Soil School, fellow Prairie dweller Kelvin Heppner tours the farm of Mikayla and Benjamin Tabert to learn how Trinity Creek Ranch has incorporated cover crops, no-till, and grazing into their grain enterprise near Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. (Details below the video)

The Taberts farm with Mikayla’s parents David and Peggy Miller and historically have grow corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa, as well as run a cow/calf herd and small feedlot.

More recently, they have diversified the crop rotation to include oilseed sunflowers, tall fescue for turf seed, intercropped peas and canola, and cover crops.

“Our goal is to get a cover crop in every year, wherever possible,” Mikayla says. “Sometimes the perennials make that difficult…but we’re not scared of trying things. We have cattle, so we can always graze things [as our] failsafe option.”

The short season and limited moisture in Minnesota means that covers are interseeded into standing crop, around V4 or V5 in corn. Corn fields usually rotate to a field pea, where there is a little more time to get a cover crop established, usually some rye, radishes and turnips, flax, maybe a little clover if it’s early enough.

The Taberts’ cattle grazing cover crops in a wheat field harvested with a stripper header.

The goal is to graze off the spring growth, which coincides with calving in May/June. Moving to spring calving is part of a larger plan to save on labour and feed costs, and Mikayla says it’s also led to healthier calves, too. After spring grazing, the field will be seeded to sunflower. They have experimented with interseeding in sunflower as well.

After sunflowers, the field is seeded to spring wheat with either rye or clover as cover that’s grazed late fall, and then the field goes into soybeans.

“We’ve tried many ways of trying to interseed cover crop into soybeans, and we’ve kind of landed on it’s easier just to get it combined and then go in late with rye,” she says.

Inspecting a cover crop mix that was interseeded in corn while applying 28-0-0.

The ability (and need) to graze cattle helps the economics work for this farm, but the change required in equipment has been quite minimal. There are bigger picture benefits, as well — as much as moisture can be limiting for many areas of the Prairies, excess spring moisture can also be a challenge for seeding.

“[Wet springs are] absolutely an obstacle, especially in the transition. I think as you get further in the transition, the soil can hold things a lot better, so there’s a lot better traffic-ability,” Mikayla says. Reducing tillage in the rotation likely should be done on some fields in some years, not necessarily all at once — for example, starting with no-tilling after beans or covers after the earliest crops.

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