For organic grain producers, your best investment is the crop you never harvest.
“I can never stress green manure plow-down enough. It is your most valuable crop,” said Steven Snider, who runs an organic grain operation near Edberg.
“Part of your farm should be soil building with a green manure plow-down. Don’t cheat yourself on green manure plow-downs.”
Green manure is a crop grown strictly to boost soil fertility — not to harvest. That can be hard for producers to wrap their heads around, Snider said at the Organic Alberta conference in late February.
“Farmers constantly get caught in the spiral of trying to make money, and they keep pushing their land harder than they should,” he said.
“When they push it hard, it just yields less, and you end up in this downward spiral as your revenue gets lower and lower and you get more and more desperate.
“That’s when we see people exiting the industry.”
Right now, one-quarter of Snider’s productive acres are put into a green manure plow-down crop, but in the past, he was doing a green manure plow-down every other year.
“We’re not doing that anymore, but we were seeing good quality and low dockage. We were seeing a billable, marketable product that was making us money,” said Snider.
Investing in the soil
But for most producers, the biggest hurdle is having acres that aren’t in production.
“You’ve got to remember that those are the acres that will return the next two years very well for you,” said Snider.
“Your green manure plow-down acres are going to yield the best of all your acres, they’re going to be the cleanest of all your acres, and they’re also the most flexible of all your acres.”
“You’ve got to look for a three-year cropping return, not one.”
Producers can do that by “looking for opportunities in your rotation,” said Joanna MacKenzie, who works with the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University.
“You don’t necessarily always need to take a year out of your rotation to include a green manure,” said MacKenzie, who also spoke at the conference.
“There are options that can let you do that without sacrificing a lot of years of production, like relay cropping or underseeding.”
But the key to making the most of that year out of production is “managing your green manures with the same care you would with any cash crop.”
“You want to be sure that the green manure you’re planting is going to do as well as it possibly can,” said MacKenzie.
“They’re basically the fertility engine that’s going to fuel the rest of the rotation, so you want to get the maximum benefit out of them by managing them with as much care as you can.
“That way, you’re offsetting that economic loss you might be having from not having a cash crop in your rotation and really maximizing your return on using these green manures.”
Choosing the right green manure
And that starts with choosing the right type of green manure for your operation.
“You have to think about what fits best with the way you farm,” said MacKenzie.
For cash crop farms, green manures are “one of your main sources of nitrogen fertility.”
“Unless you have a great relationship with a livestock producer, it’s difficult to ship manure around, and it’s expensive,” she said. “When you have a large acreage, you don’t want to be buying an input if you don’t have to.”
In cash crop rotations, there’s also “a lot more” flexibility when choosing a green manure than there is in a livestock operation.
“You can look at more of the annual green manures and some of the things that aren’t so great for grazing.”
If you are running a mixed farming operation, consider using perennial crops like alfalfa or clover that can also serve as hay or forage for your livestock.
“With this, you’re getting an economic benefit even during your green manure year,” said MacKenzie.
But if you silage the crop, “it’s a crop — not a green manure plow-down,” cautioned Snider.
“I silaged it once, and I’ll never do it again,” he said. “I had a fababean, pea, barley, and oat plow-down that was absolutely tremendous. I was young and I had payments to make, so I went to the neighbour to silage it off. I got a cheque that wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great.
“And I paid for that for the next three years. It cost me far more in production than he paid me for that silage.”
And whatever type of operation you have, leave the dirty work to someone else, said Snider.
“You should always hire someone to plow it under for you. It’s too hard to sit on a tractor and look back at the stuff that’s being turned under.”