Cover crops are the latest feature of the reformed CAP proving difficult for tillage farmers.

Already, diversification forces farmers to cater for up to three different crops, often necessitating multiple journeys to distant areas where land is rented, compared to their pre-diversification routines.

The other main new requirement is for growers of more than 15 hectares to have at least 5% ecological focus areas.

Growers who entered GLAS can sow cover crops to avoid the three-crop rule; nationally, 1,371 farmers are required to have cover crops, on 18,235 hectares.

However, cover crops have brought new problems, according to Dairygold Co-op’s newsletter for tillage farmers.

Farmers have reported:

* Soils have been far too wet after cover crops, which led to delayed ploughing and delayed sowing of spring crops.

* Crops suffered increased damage from a highly increased slug population left after the cover crop.

* Farmers found spring crops slow to take off, after cover crops.

* Poor seed-bed formation when direct drilling was used after the cover crops.

* Farmers didn’t see the return from the high input cost associated with putting in the cover crops

It’s the first year for farmers to deal with cover crops, and wet soils in the spring may be due to the extremely wet 2016 early spring and winter.

When a cover crop is sown and is in the soil for the autumn and winter, water is drawn to the roots, which causes the surface to become wetter than it would normally be.

However, when the crop dies, the roots stop drawing up water, and the surface dries. 

In heavy soil, only cover crops that die before Christmas should be used, and desiccation should be considered if necessary to allow the soil dry before cultivation.

This is not as much as an issue in dry sandy soils where water drains freely and quickly. Farmers are advised slugs can be as numerous in fields without cover crops, and the mild and wet winter favoured slugs.

As cover crops die off, slugs will disappear together with their food source. 

Nor can direct drilling difficulties be solely blamed on cover crops, especially if a cover crop is chosen which has rotted away (or has been dessicated, in extreme cases) before direct drilling time.

As for returns for the input cost, farmers are advised the benefits from a cover crop are not just for one year. 

The increased organic matter in the soil will help improve the structure of the soil, the pH, and the general health of the soil.

Cover crops can also help retain nitrogen over the winter, which will make a slight difference over a number of years.


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