If you’ve never tried to cover crop, it can seem a little daunting, but it shouldn’t be. In this article we will go over a few helpful tips and tricks to help growers begin the cover crop journey or even assist seasoned cover croppers in honing their skills.
Cover cropping is essentially adding a new tool to your orchard toolbox. Like any tool, there are a few suggestions that can help with implementation and success. Be patient as you begin the journey, knowing that you will probably make some mistakes along the way. The cover crop tool can be an effective one for many underlying issues growers face in their orchards, but it’s not a silver bullet and it has to be managed well.
I like to encourage growers to think of cover crop as a part of a holistic management program, something like their IPM or even a nitrogen or water program. In my view, there’s a big difference between planting a cover crop, and actually managing a cover crop. Management programs like nitrogen or IPM require time, thought, and proper execution to do correctly; when done right, they yield big successes and paybacks, and can cut out other expensive and time-consuming tasks. Like any good management program, it’s only as good as what you put into it. The same is true with cover crop and everything starts with the fundamentals of planning.
June through September is the time to start the planning process for your cover crop planting and season. This is when Seeds for Bees has its open enrollment period, when we send out seed, when we seek to give technical consultations to growers prior to planting, and when we begin finalizing all the necessary aspects that go into planting after harvest.
In our new Seeds for Bees Management Quick Guide, we start planning for planting in the early Summer when our application opens for Seeds for Bees. There are three fundamental questions at this point in the planning period:
1. How much seed do I need? The answer is dependent on planting method, seeding rate, and width of planting in orchard alley, to name a few;
2. What kind of planting method will I utilize? Broadcast, grain drill, no-till drill, etc.; and
3. What kind of mix do I want to plant? A mixture of multiple families of seed or just a straight one-family mix like our Pollinator Brassica?
Once these questions are answered, you are well on your way to a successful planting.
1. How Much Seed Do I Need?
How much and what kind of cover crop will depend on many factors. Generally, this can be answered when the grower decides how they will plant—by what method/implement, plus answering what the corrective goals for the soil may be. If you are doing a no-till drill with a 5-foot planting width, for example, you will need to run some math. The basic formula is this: cover crop planted width divided tree-to-tree across (drive row alley tree-to-tree width, not down the tree line). This will give you a percentage of the acreage needed to plant the whole. Then multiply that by the overall tree-planted acres of the orchard, followed by the seeding rate. Let’s run an example:
It's a grower’s first year planting cover crop. They want something easy, something that will take off, break up compacted ground, decrease nematode population, and get some deep taproots in the ground for water penetration. A straight brassica mix is chosen for all these reasons. The grower finds access to a no-till drill that will plant one pass in 5-foot lengths in their 22-foot tree-to-tree across orchard alley, and is planting a 100 acre block. Here’s the basic formula again:
Planting width ÷ by tree-to-tree spacing across X total orchard acres = cover crop acres to be planted
This is then multiplied by seeding rate of mix and method chosen. In this case, you’d need 23 acres of seed, planted at an 8lb rate, so it would be 8lbs x 23 acres, or 184lbs of seed needed for the planting. Of course, another option would be to do a double pass and get 10 feet of cover crop in the alleys, which would then just double the cover crop acreage, multiplied by the same rate with this seed mix.
2. What Kind of Planting Method Will I Utilize?
Every grower will have to answer for themselves what kind of method of planting can be utilized for their orchard. We suggest trying to find a no-till drill as this is one of the most effective methods for a good germination, but others can have great success too if other factors are done well. For example, if you cannot find a planting drill of some sort, a broadcaster on the back of an ATV has worked well for many of our growers, especially if they follow it up a pass with a spare piece of chain-link fence after the broadcast.
3. What Kind of Mix Do I Want to Plant?
If you are new to planting, I would suggest you start with a straight brassica mix of some sort, like our Pollinator Brassica. It has three mustards, a canola, and a radish. This is an effective mix to start on because the brassica seeds are small and relatively homogeneous in size (makes things easy with planting method), brassicas have a generally strong germination, take in any Central Valley scenario, and grow on relatively little amounts of water. Brassicas offer tremendous soil health and bee health benefits, too.
Once growers are walked through these basic questions of planning, things start to make sense. And once growers plant the first year, the second year becomes a breeze. If you get stuck, give us a call. We can walk you through it and make sure you are on the right path for a successful cover crop stand this year.
Prepping and Planting
Over the years, I have tried many things during planting to help get a good stand for when the bees arrive before almond bloom.
There is one fundamental factor that takes precedent over all the other tips and tricks: Timing of cover crop planting. If I plant early in October, get a good germination, and keep things moving by watchful management, I always have a successful cover crop stand before, during, and after bloom, which is the goal.
I can get consistently successful cover crop stands because I farm in the North State up in Chico and have an irrigation system that has distribution uniformities (DU) above 90%. This means that I can irrigate the middles where cover crop is planted. Some growers, however, especially those south of the Delta, may not be able to irrigate where they’ve seeded and must rely on winter rains. In a drought cycle, this is tough, but we encourage seasoned cover croppers to try a new tactic this year if on drip or micros.
Water-Wetting Zone Tactic:
If you are in the kind of a scenario where wetting patterns from drip or micros don’t go to the center of the drive row, try to plant a 3’–4’ strip of seed on their wetting pattern right after harvest, and then come back two weeks before a measurable rain is forecast to finish up in the middles. This will require an offset drawbar on a drill or planter, and/or may require some unique broadcasting, but it’s easy.
Why are we encouraging growers to plant on their wetting patterns this year? The most basic answer is what has already been said, cover crop planted in early October will give growers and bees the greatest chances for success. Secondly, most growers put on a post-harvest irrigation after harvest. To initiate the cover crop germination and early growth cycle is such a little water need that cover croppers can piggyback on these last shots irrigation. It serves as a time to capitalize on a practice that you already do (post-harvest irrigation) and use it for the next practice (cover crop germination and initial stand). Growers can take advantage of this irrigation for more than just one last drink for your almonds.
If it’s your first year, and you have drip or micros, just wait until the first measurable rain, and try to capitalize on that for the first planting. I’ve planted just prior to the first measurable rain and had a good germination afterward, but I have also planted just after if the ground is just right. Catching the moisture at the right time after precipitation can work well in some contexts. Even a light spritz with orchardists who have higher DU can help the drill or implement place seed more strategically for the germination.
In terms of prepping the soil in an almond system, it is my opinion that not much needs to be done, especially if you use a no-till drill. For any seed to be set well, a good seedbed, with loose, fertile topsoil and little to no weed competition is ideal. Look no further than what you just did for harvest and post-harvest floor work! If you put a float down after harvest to smooth things out, your loose-soil, no-weed seedbed is ready for planting, in most cases. Again, if you are broadcasting, a bit more could be done on the back end once the seed is cast, like the chain-link method mentioned earlier. The main point here is that almond growers are already primed most of the time for planting cover crop right after harvest because their orchards are already worked up and ready for this kind of practice.
PAm is working diligently this year to get seed to your doorstep before October 1st. We are also here to answer any questions you have about the process. We are here for your success. If we get this seed in at the right time, right mix, right rate, right place (sounds like a nitrogen management program!), grower, beekeeper, and bees create a win-win-win scenario. Let’s get to work.