Winter cover crop decisions: avoiding soil and nutrient loss

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The advance decisions being targeted by the initial application of our land management tool relate to cover crop planting.

We believe that better information on future winter weather conditions will support farmers in making better decisions on cover crops and therefore help to justify the additional expenditure involved (seed, fuel, labour) and avoid loss of soil (prevent potential negative impacts on the environment and communities with nutrient leaching and soil on roads).

Managing and protecting the soils is also a key cross compliance of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), and the forthcoming revised CAP will likely consider cover cropping as a Greening Option.

Specifically, CDE’s decisions include: Whether to plant a winter cover crop, which cover crop to choose and how to manage the cover crop (e.g. timing of grazing, harvesting)

For maize growers, the decision is typically made once a year in the late autumn following harvest of the preceding crop. The farmers therefore have a limited window to plant in order to reduce erosion. Decisions on whether to plant a cover crop depend on predicted rainfall in winter and risk of nutrient leaching and soil erosion. Cover cropping is also practised to hold nutrients, improve soil structure and add organic matter.

The harvest date of the preceding crop will affect whether a cover crop can be planted at the optimum time, since cover crops need to be sown as early as possible in order to establish. The sowing date for the cover crop differs between crop types, while the choice of cover crop depends on anticipated weather conditions and type of activities (e.g. potential to feed livestock).

For example, grazing rye with vetch and Westerwolds ryegress are frost tolerant while mustard and phacelia are not. Ryegrass is generally preferred and holds soil together well, but is less suitable for very cold or wet conditions; ryecorn is an alternative. Other cover crops include winter fodder such as stubble turnips, which are sown into wheat stubble. This provides green cover and winter sheep feed. Ground and conditions where/when sheep access the land can be a problem – meaning it can be critical to make use of the food resource before very wet periods. In very wet periods, the crop may die, and/or be ruined by animal trampling.

On a wider scale cover cropping is likely to be a Greening Option under the revised Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and managing and protecting soils is a key cross compliance. Soil management has become an important facet of the CAP and this is likely to increase under the new Basic Payment Scheme.

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LMTool provides seasonal winter weather forecasts (1-3 months ahead) in support of decision making on cover crop planting, choice and management.