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Fall Cover Crops For Alberta: What Works and What Doesn’t

As the summer fades and you start preparing your fields for the winter in Alberta, have you considered planting cover crops?

Cover crops offer many benefits for your soil and next year’s crop. However, not all cover crops are suitable for Alberta’s climate. You need cover crops that can establish quickly in the fall, survive the winter, and provide benefits in the spring.

After researching options and talking to other farmers in the area, here are the cover crops we’ve found work the best in Alberta.

If you want to improve your soil health, reduce erosion, and naturally manage weeds and pests, fall cover crops may be one of your farm’s most straightforward and cost-effective tools.

Skip To What You Need To Know:

5 Reasons Why You Should Plant Cover Crops In Alberta

Cover crops provide many upsides for both farmers and their lands.

There are several benefits to consider:

1. Improve Soil Health 

Cover crops increase organic matter, improve water infiltration, reduce erosion, and trap excess nitrogen in the soil. This means healthier soil that’s better able to support crop growth.

2. Natural Weed Control

Cover crops compete with weeds and prevent their growth. They also take up moisture and nutrients that would otherwise feed the weeds. Some cover crops even release chemicals that inhibit weed seed germination and growth.

3. Moisture Management

Cover crops help conserve soil moisture by shading the ground and reducing evaporation. Their roots also create pathways for water to penetrate deeper into the soil. At the same time, cover crops can help dry out excessively wet soils by transpiring water through their leaves.

4. Nutrient Cycling

Legume cover crops like clover fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to subsequent cash crops. Other cover crops scavenge nutrients like phosphorus and potassium from deep in the soil and recycle them at the surface.

5. Pest Suppression

Some cover crops release compounds that deter pests like nematodes, disease-causing fungi, and insects. They can also provide a habitat for beneficial predators like ground beetles, spiders, and birds.

In Alberta’s short growing season, choosing cover crops that establish, grow, and provide benefits quickly is critical. With the right choices and management, cover crops can improve your soil, save costs on inputs, and boost crop productivity. What’s not to like?

Cover Cropping Tips For Alberta’s Climate

Should you start using cover crops? Here are a few tips to follow.

If you want to start with cover cropping in Alberta, start with what works for our climate. Some tips:

1. Choose Cold-Tolerant Crops

Alberta’s frigid winters mean you need cover crops that can handle freezes, like rye, oats, peas, and clover. These will grow in the fall and resume growth in the spring.

On-Farm Climate Action Fund: Making Cover Cropping Within Reach

Aiming for a sustainable farm or ranch can be costly. That’s why the government has created the On-Farm Climate Action Fund (OFCAF). It provides financial support to producers to adopt beneficial management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve farm resilience. Producers can receive up to 85% reimbursement for eligible costs of improving nitrogen management, adopting cover cropping, and strengthening rotational grazing. Read more about this program here.

2. Time Seeding Carefully

Sow cover crops into standing crops like barley or canola 2-3 weeks before harvest or seed soon after harvest before the ground freezes. Well-established crops will overwinter better.

3. Consider Frost Seeding

Broadcasting seed over snow in late winter or early spring may work for some cover crops. The seed will germinate once the snow melts. This can save time in spring when you’re busy with other farm tasks.

4. Provide Nutrients

Cover crops use excess nitrogen and other nutrients left over from the previous crop. You may need to apply additional fertilizer, especially for legume-cover crops like peas and clover.

You can make cover cropping work in Alberta with the right cover crop choices, timing, and care. Learn from resources online and see the benefits to your soil, saving time and money in the long run. Your land will thank you for it!

Legume Cover Crops: Peas and Beans for Nitrogen Fixation

Legume crops make excellent natural fertilizers

Adding legume cover crops like peas and beans to your field rotation significantly benefits your soil. These plants establish a nitrogen fertilizer factory in their roots with the help of special soil bacteria called rhizobia.

  • Peas and beans trap nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia in root nodules. The rhizobia bacteria help make this conversion possible. The ammonia is then used by the plant, and the excess is left in the soil for the next crop. This is known as nitrogen fixation, and it’s like giving your soil a shot of natural fertilizer.
  • Common legume cover crops for Alberta include field peas, lentils, chickpeas, vetch, and clover. Using these cover crops can reduce your need for commercial nitrogen fertilizer.
  • In addition to providing nitrogen, legume cover crops suppress weeds, reduce erosion, and improve soil structure. Their roots penetrate deep into the soil, opening up passageways for air and water. The plants also produce organic matter as they grow and when they decompose.

Legume cover crops are an easy way to give your soil an extra nitrogen boost and improve its health without harsh chemicals. Adding them to your crop rotation, along with the right management, can help build your farm’s long-term sustainability and productivity.

Grass Cover Crops: Annual Ryegrass and Cereal Rye

Annual rye grass mixed with a different cover crop.

When selecting nonlegume cover crops for your Alberta farm, two excellent grass options are annual ryegrass and cereal rye.

Benefits of Cereal Rye As A Cover Crop

  • Nutrient Catch Crop: Cereal rye is excellent at absorbing unused soil nitrogen because its quick-growing, fibrous root system can hold as much as 100 lb. of nitrogen.
  • Prevents Erosion: Its extensive soil-holding root system helps to prevent soil erosion, which is beneficial for maintaining soil health.
  • Weed Suppression: The rapid growth and substantial biomass of cereal rye help suppress weeds effectively.
  • Disease Resistance: As a cover crop, Rye is typically disease-resistant. When used as mulch, it can even reduce infections in some cropping systems.
  • Adaptability: Cereal rye is adaptable to various soil conditions, including infertile, sandy, or acidic soil. It grows best in cool, temperate zones and can be seeded later in the fall than other cover crops.

Benefits of Annual Rye As A Cover Crop

  • Easy Establishment: Annual ryegrass establishes easily and can winterkill in colder climates, providing a protective mulch layer.
  • Soil Structure Improvement: Just like cereal rye, annual ryegrass contributes to improving soil structure thanks to its fibrous root system.
  • Erosion Control: It provides a good cover for the soil, helping to control erosion.
  • Weed Suppression: The dense growth of annual ryegrass helps suppress weeds, keeping your soil weed-free.
  • Nutrient Scavenging: Annual ryegrass is effective at scavenging excess nitrogen from the soil, contributing to better soil fertility.

Keep in mind that while both types of rye offer many benefits, they can also become weeds if allowed to set seed. So managing them properly is key!

Brassica Cover Crops: Radishes and Mustards

Black mustard is an example of brassica cover crop.

Brassicas like radishes, turnips and mustards are excellent cover crop options for Alberta’s short growing season.

Benefits of Using Brassica Cover Crops

  • Erosion Control and Nutrient Scavenging: With their rapid fall growth, brassicas can cover over 80% of the soil, protecting it from erosion. They can also capture and recycle leftover soil nitrogen, which is incredibly beneficial for soil health.
  • Pest Management: Brassicas have biotoxic properties that can trap nematodes and suppress soil borne pests and diseases. However, it’s important to note that results can vary and more research is needed in this area.
  • Weed Suppression: Thanks to their rapid growth and canopy closure, brassica cover crops can keep weeds in check. 
  • Soil Conditioning: Some brassicas have a large taproot that can break through hard soil layers better than other cover crops. This helps improve soil structure and health over time.

Different Species of Brassica and Mustard Cover Crops

  • Black Mustard (Brassica nigra): This tough plant is known for its hard seeds, but it should be used with caution as it can sometimes cause weed problems in subsequent crops.
  • Rapeseed: Rapeseed is known for its high biomass production and its ability to scavenge nutrients. However, it also contains erucic acid and glucosinolates, which can be toxic in certain circumstances.
  • Forage Radish: This species is planted in late summer and dies with the first hard frost, providing excellent soil coverage and weed control during this period.

Remember, the use of these cover crops should be tailored to your specific farming system and local conditions. Always consult with local experts before starting your project.

Mixing Cover Crop Varieties For the Best Results

Mixed crops in a field.

Cocktail cover cropping is a fascinating farming method originating in Brazil that’s transforming agriculture and offering a slew of benefits. It’s all about mixing and matching crops to reap the best benefits for the soil, crops, and farmers alike.

Tips  For Successful Cocktail Cover Cropping

  • Understand Your Soil: Knowing what your soil needs is the first step. Only then can you choose the right cover crop mixture to improve it.
  • Embrace Diversity: Using a diverse mix of plants and animals can help improve soil health and productivity. It can also make your farm more resilient.
  • Keep the Soil Covered: Plants growing in the soil year-round help keep it healthy and productive.
  • Use Livestock: Incorporating livestock, like letting them graze on the cover crops, can enhance the benefits of cocktail cover cropping.

Cocktail cover cropping is an ingenious farming innovation that promotes soil health, crop diversity and sustainable farming. From Brazil to Alberta, it’s transforming agriculture one seed at a time!

Stay Productive And Profitable With Cover Crops

There you have it, the top cover crop options for fall in Alberta and the pros and cons of each. While some may require more management, the benefits to your soil health and subsequent crops make cover crops worth considering. 

The next time you’re planning your fall seeding, look at adding a cover crop to the mix. Not only will you gain valuable experience, but you’ll be building the foundation for productive, sustainable farming in Alberta for years to come. Your soil, your crops, and your bottom line will thank you for it. So get out there, get your hands dirty, and see what fall cover crops can do for you!

Interested in agriculture and developing your own sustainable farming practices? Hansen Land Brokers has years of experience helping clients find and assess agricultural properties across Alberta. Plus, we can help you understand all the legal requirements and guide you through the process step by step. Contact us today and let’s get started!

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