Cover crops can hurt forage stands

An Alberta applied research group does not recommend using cover crops in forage stand establishment, saying the cover crops can be detrimental to the health of the new forage crop.
The research group has shown through a demonstration project that the use of cover crops in forage production actually does more harm than good.
In the demonstration plots, forage plants established with a cover crop tended to be spindly and had few leaves. Cover crops compete with forage stands for water, light, nutrients, and space, making the forage less productive and less healthy.
Modelled on a similar project in Saskatchewan, this demonstration involved three separate sites. Barley, oats, triticale, and annual ryegrass were used as cover crops seeded along with meadow brome, smooth brome, tap rooted alfalfa, and creeping rooted alfalfa as forage crops.
Each site was monitored throughout the summer and the results showed that cover crops were not the best management practice for forage establishment.
Properly-established forage crops which lead to thick, healthy stands are a key component to carbon sequestration in the soil. Forage plants are able to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store a portion of that as carbon in plant tissue and in the soil.
Maintaining a perennial forage stand increases the amount of stored carbon in the soil, which can improve soil fertility and productivity while protecting the soil from wind erosion.
As well, perennial forage stands, especially those containing a legume, require fewer annual fossil fuel inputs, such as fertilizer, fuel, and machinery wear and tear, compared to annual crops.
The project did identify one short-term disadvantage to not using cover crops. Plots with no cover crop were more susceptible to weed infestations.
A healthy forage crop benefits the livestock industry by providing a sustainable forage resource. Establishing a healthy stand initially is important in maintaining yield and forage quality over the long-term.
Also, improvements in production efficiencies associated with highly-productive forage stand reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef produced.
Producers should notice the added benefits of having a healthy forage crop. Good management practices improve production efficiency and that is good news for people looking to run efficient operations.