Improving Soil Health

daikon radish Cover crops—also called green manures—ranging from legumes, daikon radishes, grains, and even special pasture blends for feeding beef in fall and winter are attracting increasing attention from southern Idaho farmers beleaguered by water shortages and nearby wildland fires. So, a team of UI Extension specialists and educators has conducted field studies to determine which crops do best for various elevations and needs.  Information from those studies is now available in a new bulletin (Bulletin 889 located at:  http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edComm/pdf/BUL/BUL889.pdf), which you can download for free.

Cover crops “can help prevent erosion, retain water, capture nitrogen, and provide organic matter to increase soil fertility,” said UI Extension’s Amber Moore, who addressed the topic at the spring 2014 Nutrient Management Conference in Twin Falls. She is the soil scientist at the UI Twin Falls R&E Center.

Growers who find the right cover crops, “can have their cake and eat it, too---a double benefit,” added Christi Falen, former Lincoln County UI Extension educator. Since the cost of cover crop seed can be expensive, UI Extension educators Falen and Lauren Hunter, Blaine County, have evaluated production of forage that can be grazed leaving a residual for re-growth and then incorporating the regrowth as a green manure.

“If the benefits from forage production/grazing will cover the cost of seed, planting, and irrigation, then the green manure will be ‘free’,” says Falen.  “With the shortage of low-cost feed alternatives for livestock producers, this could be a win-win for both livestock and crop producers.”

Falen and Hunter’s research showed success combining Arvika peas with oats in two on-farm trials. Jerome’s Jim Meeks was among those implementing her idea, planting multiple pivots with this mix in 2013.

“It worked like a champ,” said Meeks, who planted different combinations on fields that in summer grow potatoes, sugar beets, oats and malting barley. He follows UI Extension’s suggested Management intensive Grazing (MiG) program, meaning 250 head of cattle feed on 3 to 4 acres for 2 to 4 days before moving to a new strip with a forage cover crop.  With this cover-crop grazing, Meeks figures he saves $237 a day or some $7,000 a month on feed for 250 cows/calves.  “We hope to continue to learn and keep doing this to winter our cattle,” said Meeks.

Contact:  Lauren Hunter, UI Extension Educator, Blaine County (lhunter@uidaho.edu, 208-788-5585); or Amber Moore, UI Extension Soil Scientist (amberm@uidaho.edu, 208-736-3629).