Roadside plant jumble is no accident

Margaret Allen
Ryan States with the Fort Hays State University farm checks a cover crop plot west of Hays along county blacktop 230th Avenue.

“We got a combine coming this morning,” said Harland Werth, crop supervisor at the Fort Hays State University farm west of Hays.

With clear skies and a soft breeze Friday morning, Werth and his colleague Ryan States were set to cut 50 acres of wheat in a field at the corner of 230th Avenue and Golf Course Road.

The farm, with more than 4,000-acres in a four-mile radius in Ellis County, has four full-time employees and a handful of student workers. The ground is about 50-50 cropland and pasture.

During the summer, besides harvesting wheat, some of the chores include swathing alfalfa, and taking care of 250 cow-calf pairs, as well as pigs, sheep and goats, Werth said.

And then there’s a small seven-acre field of cover crops to keep an eye on, planted into 14 test plots in partnership with Kauffman Seeds, Yoder.

Anyone driving by the field, which is visible from the two-lane county blacktop 230th Avenue, will notice it doesn’t look like most fields in these parts.

There isn’t the familiar wheat, corn, soybeans or milo, as single crops in neat rows forming a blanket as far as the eye can see.

Instead, each plot is a crazy mix of as many as eight different plants. Cover crops, States and Werth explain, are basically a non-cash crop, forming a blend that animals can graze, that improves the soil, adds fertilizer in some cases, and reduces water run-off.

In this case these are spring cover crops, States said, a variety of seed blends planted in late February or early March, and which include everything from oats, field peas and triticale, to hairy vetch, rape, cereal rye and barley.

Say what?

“Two-row barley is for making beer,” said States, pointing to a plant in one plot. Turning to another, he adds, “This one is six-row barley. That would be more for grain for forage, generally.”

Then there’s cereal rye.

“It is prolific and can choke out weeds,” States said.

While cover crops are a relatively new farming practice, they are catching on. Some farmers plant them in the early spring, then kill them out before they plant corn, said States.

“That provides a lot of extra ground shading,” he said, “and corn roots do better when they’re cool.”

The FHSU farm and Kauffman have planted cover crops for about seven years, said Werth.

“What we’re finding out, we’re helping with soil health, we’re building organic matter, we’re building a nice sponge to help with water run-off, and also we’re covering the ground,” said John Welch, the Kauffman Seed salesman in western Kansas who works with the FHSU farm.

They seem to reduce the need for weed-killer, Welch said.

“A weed won’t grow unless it has moisture and sunlight,” he said. “It’ll help conserve moisture with the cover crop, but it shades the ground to where you have less weeds able to get to the sunlight for them to grow.”

Soon Kauffman will deliver a summer mix to plant south of the spring mix.

“We’ve got guys like in the spring ones, they’ll graze ’em, and then they’ll kind of let them grow back up and spray them and kill them,” Welch said. “Sometimes some guys will plant into it green, the cover crop will be live, still growing. Then spray it after they plant.”

How do farmers know what blend to plant?

“We don’t want to overthink it,” Welch said, noting it depends on the cash crop the farmer will plant after the cover crop, or the one just planted, as well as other factors, like trying to build Nitrogen, trying to reduce compaction or run-off, growing forage, and other considerations.

“Everybody’s situation is different, we don’t have just one blend that works for everybody in every part of the state,” Welch said. “We design them specifically for that location, for that farmer, and what he wants to do.”

Besides suppressing weeds, said States, some covers fix Nitrogen into the soil, providing fertilizer for the next cash crop. They also keep a growing root in the soil during what otherwise would be basically a dead soil season, he said.

That helps the “herd” underground, said States, mentioning beneficial fungi and bacteria that thrive in healthy soil, transferring nutrients and water to the cash crop.

They can also help retain moisture, Welch said.

“I have seen ground temperatures through the summer, in a summer cover crop, stay cooler, and save a lot more moisture, than just leaving it open and letting the sun bake the ground,” he said.

Kauffman is preparing blends now for planting into wheat stubble. Then there are fall cover crops.

“Then let the freeze kill it,” Welch said. “Then they’ll turn crows out on it to graze the dry matter out in the field instead of having to bale it, and save some expense that way.”

Cereal rye, in the current plots, is good for shade and weed suppression, keeping the ground cool, States said, explaining the different plants.

Then there’s triticale, a hybrid between wheat and rye, which is good for feed.

“A lot of people think it’s wheat,” States said.

Rape has a single root that drops down and their big leaves help suppress some weed seed growth.

The field peas, they’re a high protein source for animals when used for forage.

Covers mature to reproductive stage, so stubble and residue stick around longer as ground cover, Welch said.

“It helps build back what we call the sponge beneath the soil, the organic matter, which helps absorb water,” he said, “instead of watching it run off.”

Anyone is welcome to take a look at the cover crop test plots just south of the Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex, States said.

FHSU and Kauffman seeds in September expect to hold a field day for farmers to see the summer cover crops.

The purple flower of a  hairy vetch plant is seen growing in a cover crop plot at the Fort Hays State University farm west of Hays along county blacktop 230th Avenue.