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Moisture key to establishing broadcast cover crops

Broadcasting can be a cheap and effective way of establishing cover crops, but its success is largely dependent on having adequate soil moisture. Abby Kellett reports.


Abby   Kellett

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Abby   Kellett
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While most growers recognise the benefits associated with growing cover crops, the time it takes to establish the crop and the cost of the seed are common barriers which prevent some farmers from adopting the practice.

 

As more growers look for more affordable ways to establish cover crops, trials conducted by seed merchants Shepherd Seeds show that, under the right conditions, broadcasting cover crop seed into a standing cereal crop can be a successful method of establishment.

 

The Lincolnshire-based company, which specialises in cover crops, carried out field trials in two locations last season; one on a heavy clay site in north Lincolnshire and the other on a medium clay loam site in the south of the county.

 

Six cover crop species were broadcast at each site at standard sowing rates on July 15 and the differences in germination and establishment timings were monitored.

 

The data showed lack of moisture during germination and early establishment was the single biggest limiting factor associated with broadcasting.

 

Company director Will Shepherd says: “Over the same period of time, the northern site received more than twice the rainfall compared to the southern site, which on average was 2degC warmer throughout the establishment period.

 

“The higher total rainfall at the northern site resulted in all six species germinating successfully within six days of broadcasting, whereas germination was slower and less vigorous across all the species at the southern site.”

 

Additionally, larger seeds, such as vetch and forage rye, were slower to germinate across both sites, while smaller seeds, such as mustards and tillage radish, germinated within a week of being sown.

 

Days from sowing to germination

 

Species

North Site

South Site

Black oats

Five days

Seven days

Buckwheat

Four days

Five days

Forage rye

Five days

Seven days

Mustard

Four days

Five days

Tillage radish

Four days

Five days

Vetch

Six days

Failed

Source: Shepherd Seeds

 

Once established, all species grew quickly, despite conditions remaining dry.

 

But while the smaller seeds were better able to cope with the lack of moisture, spreadable width tests, which were carried out before the trial, revealed the smaller seeded species were unable to travel beyond 12 metres.

 

Mr Shepherd says: “Many of the smaller-seeded species would not consistently travel further than 12m, so their use in situations requiring larger spreading widths would be limited.


“But by using a smaller disk spreader over a larger machine, our trials have shown growers can expect to achieve better spreading accuracy at shorter widths and less seed damage.”

 

When broadcasting costs are compared with those of conventional or direct drilling, it is clear there are savings to be made, says Mr Shepherd.


“The lower fuel costs and man hours alone would all but offset the cost of the seed used in most cases.

 

“Broadcasting is also likely to appeal to growers in the North who have a short window between harvest and drilling in which to establish a cover crop.”


However, the main trade-off is the speed and success rate of germination and the total establishment of cover, which is largely dependent on weather conditions post-broadcasting, he adds.


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Application timing

Application timing

When broadcasting into a standing crop, timing is critical. Too soon and the cover crop may become too tall and may be damaged at harvest. Too late and the cover crop may not have enough time to establish before being covered with straw and chaff, Mr Shepherd says.

 

“Working out an optimum time to broadcast the seed can be a real challenge because you cannot predict whether or not the weather conditions are going to favour good establishment and early growth. Equally, it can be difficult to predict when the cash crop is going to be ready to harvest.

 

“There may be a need to adjust the cutting height at harvest depending on how the cover crop has grown.

 

“Further trials are planned for the coming year to help gain further knowledge around application timing,” he adds.

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