There is an old saying that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. While it took more than five minutes, this spring has certainly been an example of how quickly conditions can change.
Up until about mid-April the outlook for this year’s growing season was pretty dismal as indications were that the dry conditions were likely to continue and the extreme drought encompassing the area was apt to persist. Then, a couple of major April snow storms started changing the outlook followed by a couple major rainfall events during May. As a result, what started out looking like a dry spring has now become a challenge due to the excess moisture and cooler temperatures which has slowed spring planting progress.
The last date a crop can be planted and still receive full crop insurance coverage has already passed for the majority of crops. The exception is soybean, sunflower and flax which have a final planting date of June 10 in this area. After the final planting date, there are three basic options; continue planting the initial crop and receive reduced insurance coverage (about 1% reduction per day out to about 25 days), claim prevented planting without planting an alternative crop (crop to be harvested) or claim prevented planting and seed an alternative or second crop with insurance coverage. Make sure to check with your crop insurance agent to discuss options.
With stronger crop prices and a good moisture profile, most producers will likely continue seeding past the final planting date but with the planting window ticking down, it is becoming apparent that there will be acres that are simply too wet to seed this spring.
The question then becomes what to do with prevented planting acres.
If these acres ever dry out enough to seed, the best option would be to plant a cover crop or annual forage crop on these acres. Having desirable plants growing in these areas will help dry the soil down by transpiring moisture through the plants. That’s preferable to relying on evaporation to dry the soil out. One of the big advantages to transpiring the moisture through plants is if there are any salts in the soil profile, they will stay where they are at in the profile as opposed to being brought to the surface through evaporation. As we saw during the wet years starting in 2011, the concentration of salts left on the surface as moisture evaporates can lead to expansion of saline areas or the development of new saline seeps.
In addition, having plants growing and living roots in the soil is beneficial to soil health. Roots provide structure for the soil to hang on to when destructive forces of wind and water occur. Plus, living roots build soil. The soil microbiology plays a big role in this process by helping the plants acquire nutrients and water from the soil in exchange for carbon from the plant. Without living roots in the soil, the microbiology slows in existence. The increase in soil microbiology in the soil because of the living roots is directly responsible for healthy soil structure creation.
Better soil structure promotes water and air exchange into and out of the soil through the formation of soil aggregates and increased pore space in the soil. Better structure also gives the soil greater ability to support more weight from tractors or animals.
If you have any doubts, ask yourself this question. After a 2-inch rain, would you rather cross a grass pasture or a stubble field? The grass will typically support traffic better due to better soil structure.
When you think of soil health, think of the biological integrity of your soil. It’s important not only to have enough soil microbes, but also a diverse population. This is how soil biology supports plant growth. Living roots provide soil microbes with something they like to eat to keep their populations up. Once the microbes are well-fed they can go to work for you to improve the health of the soil.
One important change that has occurred with prevented planting acres since they were last common during the wet years starting in 2011 is that cover crops planted on prevented plant acres can now be grazed, hayed or cut anytime without a reduction in the prevented plant payment. As such, prevented planting may provide an opportunity for farmers to plant cover crops for livestock forage.
Following is a good article on planting cover crops for livestock forage that was just recently released by the NDSU Extension Service. A quick side note – if you do think you may have some prevented planting acreage you would like to seed to cover crops or annual forages, you may want to start sourcing seed as it sounds like some annual forages and cover crops species are getting hard to find.
Consider Planting Cover Crops for Livestock Forage – Challenging weather conditions due to a combination of excess moisture and cool temperatures have inhibited spring planting, resulting in the potential for above normal acres of prevented planting.
In addition, many livestock producers in the region are short on forage due to severe drought in 2020 and 2021 and delayed pasture readiness this spring.
“The increase in preventive-plant acres provides an opportunity for the production of supplementary forage for livestock to offset the shortage of forage supplies,” says Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency provides full prevented planting payment on the first insured crop if a second crop is not planted. However, full payment can still be received if the second crop planted is a cover crop, and it is not harvested for grain or seed. The cover crop can be grazed, hayed or cut anytime without a reduction of payment. Contact your local Farm Service Agency (FSA) or Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to verify whether the cover crop seeded is an approved mix.
“Cover crops for grazing can provide significant cost savings to producers by minimizing the need for baled forages or provide an alternative grazable forage to allow recovery to overgrazed pastures,” says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist.
The seed mixture options for full and late-season grazing could include cool-season cereals (oats, barley, triticale), warm-season grasses (sorghum-sudan, sudangrass, pearl millet), brassicas (turnips, radishes, kale), broadleaf plants (sunflowers, buckwheat) and legumes (forage peas, clovers, vetch).
For guidance selecting the right option to fit your needs, refer to NDSU Extension publication “Annual Cover Crop Options for Grazing and Haying in the Northern Plains” by searching for it online or contacting your local NDSU Extension office.
“Ranchers should introduce livestock to these mixes slowly and allow them to adjust to the cover crop mixture that may be nutrient-rich in comparison with mid- and late-summer range,” says Meehan.
If using brassicas in a mix for grazing, the general recommendation is to limit livestock to less than 50% of the seed mixture to avoid digestive disorders in cattle. Provide livestock with dry hay or other forage prior to turnout and gradually introduce them to cover crops during a period of several days if possible.
Cover crops for late-season grazing should be seeded no later than Aug. 15 to be cost-effective in the northern Plains; however, planting earlier will increase overall tonnage and enhance deeper root growth to increase organic carbon and feed for the soil microbial population. Warm-season crops will have limited value if seeded after Aug. 1 due to the short growing season that remains.
If preventative plant acres are identified early, planting a full-season cover crop will provide an excellent option for summer and late-season grazing. Full-season cover crops can be seeded as early as mid-June.
If Haying is the Goal – Recommended species for haying include cool-season cereals (oats, barley, triticale), warm-season grasses (sorghum-sudan, foxtail millet, sudangrass) and legumes (forage peas, clovers and vetch). The cereal grains and warm-season grasses can be seeded in monocultures or mixtures with or without the legume if approved by FSA. However, mixtures are preferred to increase diversity to benefit the soil microbial population, pollinators and some wildlife species.
If Silage/Haylage is the Goal – This is a great option when harvesting before a freeze to achieve silage of the desired moisture conditions. Moisture needs to be 65% to 70% for a bunker and 60% to 68% for silo bags. A hard freeze will reduce the moisture content dramatically within 24 to 48 hours. Haylage can be put up at a lower moisture level (40% to 60%).
“While excess moisture has created planting challenges, it is important that adequate topsoil moisture is available to support the growth of cover crops,” Meehan says. “In addition to available soil moisture, recommended planting dates and seed availability will limit producers’ options.”
Farmers intending on planting cover crops on prevented-planting acres to suppress weeds and enhance soil health have an opportunity to market this forage to livestock producers. The NDSU Feedlist (www.ag.ndsu.edu/feedlist/) can connect crop producers with livestock producers in search of additional forage.
“Planting a cover crop can enhance your soil health while creating feed for full and late-season grazing or hay and silage production,” Sedivec says.