Farmers Focus: Emergency cover crop growing nicely

Two months ago, a fire burnt most of my maize residue on one farm. This is devastating for a fanatical no-tiller like me.

Last month I wrote how I no-till drilled wheat into the bare soil as a cover crop in preparation for my summer crop of maize or dry beans.

About two weeks after seeding into this dry exposed soil we received 20mm rain, perfect.

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The wheat germinated and is growing nicely thanks to a follow-up 25mm rain.

We get a lot of wind and already those sandy fields have stopped blowing, so my first goal for the cover crop has been achieved.

Putting no-till to the test

Many people say that I am wasting moisture with this cover crop and I will pay for it in yield of my primary summer crop. I believe that the opposite is true.

These sandy soils cap very easily, which seriously impedes water infiltration of future rainfall.

Most of our rain comes from high-intensity storms so infiltration and erosion can be a big issue.

Another problem is that this capped surface blows in the wind, sandblasting the little maize plants so badly that they are either severely stunted or die.

I am going to have to get my timing right – too much cover crop will cut into my maize yield, but if I terminate it too soon I will lose its benefits.

I have planted maize and soya beans on some of the unburnt fields. Moisture is good despite the little rain.

It is amazing to see that the soil is dry in sections where there is no cover and the moisture is perfect under the residue.

Fortunately, my fields have good general cover so I am confident in germination, even if there is no follow up rain in the near term. No-till put to the test!

Bruce Shepherd farms in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Read his biography.