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Cover crop cocktails coming to the 2016 Bulk Order

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 December Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell

Great news for soil-conscious growers in MA, CT and RI – in 2016 the NOFA Bulk Order will feature, for the first time, pre-mixed cover crop cocktails.

The inaugural blends will both feature a mix of brassicas, grasses and legumes, but one will be frost-sensitive for the best chance of winter-killing, while the other will be hardy to northeast winters for use as a multi-year fallow or pasture. The mixes are designed to offer the multiple, synergistic ecological functions that are the hallmark of a good cover crop cocktail, while also remaining cost effective.

Taprooted brassicas break up subsoils, improving aerations and water penetration, while carefully selected assorted grass species build biomass and hold digested nutrients for the next crop. Assorted legumes fix nitrogen. All of these diverse species attract, feed and provide habitat for living organisms at every level – in the soil, on its surface, and in its dense green canopy once growing.

In considering what varieties and species to include in the mix, consideration was also made for a variety of tolerances to dry and wet conditions, so different conditions may change the percentages of certain species in the mix, but the overall result will still be good coverage despite variation in field conditions.

Of course, land conditions vary so widely across a given county (let alone the whole Northeast) that mixing the perfect cocktail for every farm is impossible. “When faced with this level of complexity, a good strategy is to rely on principles,” writes the agronomist Andrew McGuire (Washington State University) in his article, Mixing the Perfect Cover Crop Cocktail. “The more diversity the better seems to be the guiding principle of cocktail farmers,” he continues. “The limitations are agronomic (planting mixtures with varying seed sizes can be challenging), economic (some seed is expensive) and climatic (the right mixture will depend on when it is being planted and the succeeding temperature and precipitation/irrigation).”

We have attempted to take some of the challenges out of the process for growers in our region by providing an array of pre-mixed seeds so farmers won’t have to purchase smaller quantities of each individual seed (which can add up quickly!) and find a way to blend the seed effectively.

There will of course still be the question of how to plant the seed—it may not work as well in tractor-mounted cone spreaders due to the different sizes and weights of seed. Drop spreaders may be more effective, but growers will have to experiment with settings. Still, the advantage of the blended seed is eliminating the need for multiple passes with equipment thereby reducing soil compaction. I know there are many small-to-medium sized growers out there who will broadcast the seed and turn it in with hand tools. A great resource for this style of seeding is Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, CT. You can see him speak at the upcoming NOFA/Mass Winter Conference at Worcester State University on January 16, 2016.

You will be able to see the finalized list of ingredients in NOFA’s custom cover crop cocktails when the 2016 Bulk Order Catalog is published on January 1st at www.nofamass.org/programs/bulk-order-program. Specific recommendations for application will be provided with each blend.

I will be following up with amenable growers who try our blends to collect as much feedback as possible. We hope to continue to learn and improve our blends as new research comes out from NRCS and university agronomy programs, but the feedback of practitioners in our region will be of equal importance.

References

McGuire, Andrew. Mixing the Perfect Cover Crop Cocktail. Website for the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, 17 April 2013. http://csanr.wsu.edu/cover-crop-cocktail/

Matthews, Annie Young. Cover Crop Mixes for Soil Health: USDA-NRCS Corvallis Plant Materials Center Annual Progress Report. January 2014. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/climatechange/?cid=stelprdb1077238

Rawson, Julie. Considering Cover Cropping in the Farm as Ecosystem, NOFA/Mass Newsletter. February 2014. http://www.nofamass.org/articles/2014/02/considering-cover-cropping-farm-ecosystem

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