How do cover crops perform in a drought? Visitors were able to find out during a tour of the Menoken Demonstration Farm near Bismarck in central North Dakota on July 29. The conservation demonstration farm is owned and operated by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District.
The farm grows various grain and cover crops, and incorporates livestock grazing. It had received about 5 inches of precipitation since January, about 40% of normal, and was in the D3, or extreme drought, category.
One field on the tour had cover crops that were small, stunted and barely hanging on. However, with a little bit of rain, the cover crop still had the potential to produce some forage for livestock, according to the tour leaders, who were no-till and cover crop farmers from North Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma and Alberta, Canada. It’s better, they said, to have the seed in the soil than in the bin.
In other fields, the grain crops — corn and sunflowers — looked better, even robust, and the cover crop mixes planted with them were lush. Apparently, the residue on the soil surface had conserved enough soil moisture to get the crops and covers going. The roots they developed were tapping the deep moisture, and the thick canopies were reducing evaporation.
“Sometimes,” said one of the presenters, “you have to make your own luck.”
Tonneson, now retired, is a former editor of Dakota Farmer.