There is a growing interest in planting cover crops in cotton and broadacre systems, providing the potential to preserve soil moisture, improve soil health and manage weeds.
As part of the CRDC project ‘Staying ahead of weed evolution in changing cotton systems’, the Queensland DAF Weed Science team investigated the impact of cover crops on weed suppression.
Research has shown that cover crops can provide a benefit in terms of weed control. However, in order for them to be effective, it is important to start with a clean crop and ensure that the cover provided is adequate and evenly spread.
Similar to findings from grower Jamie Grant in the following case study, research showed that when the cover was not adequate, lower amounts of cover provided a haven for weeds to germinate. A clean crop also provides the cover crop with a head start and improves its ability to out-compete the weeds.
The project also examined the effectiveness of the 2+2 and 0 strategy (two non-glyphosate tactics in crop, plus two non-glyphosate tactics in fallow and zero survivors or incursions). This strategy was found to be effective, and the use of tools such as WEED-IT can provide an effective way to incorporate other herbicides, and particularly follow-up for effective survivor control.
Darling Downs grower Jamie Grant has more than a decade of experience growing cover crops and was a pioneer in including millet in his rotation as a dedicated cover crop. Jamie has modified his machinery and farming style, after much on-farm trial and experimentation.
Jamie Grant: experience and experimentation lights the way
Jamie is a dryland cotton grower near Jimbour, Darling Downs in South East Queensland. His current crop rotation is cotton every second year and a millet cover crop every other year. He has included French white millet as a cover crop in his rotation for nearly a decade and as a result, he has been able to change from cotton every third year to every second.
Jamie said his main reason for including the cover crop is to preserve soil moisture.
“The cover crop increases infiltration from rainfall, prevents the majority of run-off in larger events, and also prevents evaporation of moisture from the soil,” he said. “Weed management was not a major focus for the inclusion of the cover crop, however the cover from the millet does give an additional benefit in terms of weed control.”
Jamie also highlights the importance of a dedicated cover crop, as compared to a cash crop that is harvested for grain.
“The main purpose of the cover crop is to preserve moisture and cover,” he said. “When a crop is allowed to reach harvest maturity, it has taken extra moisture from the soil profile contrary to the objectives of a cover crop.”
Jamie has settled on French white millet as his cover crop, planted in 15-inch (38cm) rows. As the focus is to preserve soil moisture, millet is a short duration crop and can be grown to near maturity in six weeks from planting in October to December. In this time, the millet provides maximum cellulose to give the maximum length of cover from the stubble.
“While growing, the millet only uses approximately one foot or 30 cm of stored soil moisture,” Jamie said. “The gains in soil moisture has improved fallow efficiency from 30 per cent in fallow to 70 per cent with the cover crop.”
Before the inclusion of the cover crop, the soil profile required approximately 600mm of rainfall to refill. Now the profile is refilled after 300mm. The millet also creates enough cellulose that the cover remains adequate until cotton is planted the following season.
Jamie’s own research has shown that legumes tend to break down too quickly to provide the length of cover required, and French white millet has the right characteristics.
“I find that if I plant in October, I generally have 40 per cent cover the following November, when I’m ready to plant cotton,” Jamie said. “I don’t use sorghum as a cover crop, as the wider row spacing does not provide the cover needed, and the gaps in the stubble create a suitable microenvironment for weed germination and growth.”
“I also noticed that in lighter rainfall events in sorghum and wheat stubble, the rainfall runs down the stalks of the standing stubble and creates a wet patch at the base. This is where the weeds grow and creates weedy patches across the field. A good millet cover crop is more even and allows the rain to penetrate the stubble evenly, and the stubble cover reduces weed emergence and the need to spray.”
Cover crops must reach maturity to create the maximum amount of cellulose for longevity. Other crops such as sorghum, wheat and barley take too long to reach maturity and as a result use too much moisture.
Managing problem weeds
The main weeds on Jamie’s farm include sowthistle, feathertop Rhodes grass and fleabane. Jamie places a high importance on weed control, however says “if you can grow good weeds, you can grow good crops”.
Jamie’s focus on weed management in the cover crop is to ensure adequate cover across the whole field, as gaps in cover create a haven for weeds.
“I do this by ensuring good germination, with quality seed, and I put as much effort into growing a good cover crop as I do growing cotton,” he said. “Double knocks are still an important part of the herbicide program and controlling weeds prior to crop emergence (both for millet and cotton) ensure the crop can get a head start to out compete the weeds. An in-crop spray of MCPA and Starane is always done in the millet to control volunteer cotton, however if a heavy cover crop is grown a spray to control volunteer cotton is not always needed.”
Jamie also uses a controlled traffic system (CTS), as he considers minimising soil compaction to be very important, has been using WeedSeeker technology on a large boom for a number of years, and is now using a SwarmFarm robot mounted with a WEED-IT sprayer across his fields.
The big boom is generally used for broadacre spraying, with the relevant herbicide mixture for the weeds present. The WeedSeeker, and now the SwarmFarm robot with the WEED-IT, will be mainly used to control weeds in fallows between rain events, and broadacre sprays on mass germinations. The spray rig is also rotated across the tramlines in the CTS, so that it does not constantly run up and down the same wheel tracks. This allows subsequent sprays to control weeds that were run over by the rig in the previous spray.
Jamie’s key learnings and advice to growers considering growing cover crops is to ‘work it backwards’.
“Grow the cover crop that can accumulate the most moisture, and then grow the cash crop that will take the best advantage of the moisture,” he said. “It is important to work out your moisture availability and your crop frequency. The moisture holding capacity of the soil will be better with a cover crop independent of soil type. The lower the capacity of the soil to hold moisture, the greater the effect evaporation has. This increases the importance of having a cover crop.”
Growing good cover
Jamie has spent a couple of years determining how to germinate and grow a good cover crop. He also stressed the importance of purchasing quality seed.
“Patience is the key,” he said. “It is important to do a good job with proper seedbed preparation at planting. An example of this when planting millet, is that it does not like to break through a crust while emerging.”
If Jamie gets enough rainfall for planting millet, he checks the forecast to ensure a further heavy rainfall event is not likely to occur within the next seven to 10 days. If rainfall is forecast, he holds off planting until the event occurs. This ensures the millet has the right conditions for germination and a good start.
Jamie finds that putting the effort into the millet crop means he reaps the benefit in the following cotton crop.
“A new tactic I’m considering is intercropping – planting millet between the cotton on a 60-inch row spacing (152 cm), and then spraying the millet out after three to four weeks,” he said. “This will increase ground cover in the cotton crop, with the benefits of increased weed competition, better rainfall infiltration and reduced moisture evaporation in-crop, for the sacrifice of some surface moisture that will evaporate in summer anyway.”
Jamie said it is also of key importance to let neighbours know what cover crops you have, to minimise the risk of spray drift, which will reduce their effectiveness by either killing areas or impeding growth and creating areas of less than adequate cover.
“Mapping fields with SataCrop is an important tool to do this,” he said.
Effect on soil moisture quantified
Cover crops serve multiple purposes in a cotton rotation, with research underway to quantify the effect on water infiltration and moisture holding capacity of soils.
Research is also underway in the Riverina as part of the ‘Staying ahead of weed evolution in changing cotton systems’ project. Researchers at NSW DPI in collaboration with CRDC, GRDC and Queensland DAF have run a series of experiments at the IREC trial site near Whitton in Southern NSW to better understand the effectiveness of incorporating cover crops into cotton systems. The aim of this research is to evaluate the benefits that cover crops could provide when incorporated into cotton systems, especially improved water infiltration and water holding capacity of soil.
An experiment looking at cover crop species and rotation types has been completed and is being analysed by a biometrician to gain insight into the soil water dynamics as influenced by the cover crops. Initial results suggest the type of cover used is less important than the amount of cover or biomass that is grown when it comes to influencing on yield.
This season a spray out timing experiment is being conducted to determine how much biomass is required by cover cropping to have an influence on infiltration and water holding capacity. During the winter fallow a cover crop mix was sown and subsequently sprayed out at different growth stages.
NSW DPI cotton research agronomist at Yanco, Hayden Petty says the intent was to achieve varying amounts of biomass into which cotton was planted. This will be compared to a fallow that is the control for the experiment.
“Cover crops offer many benefits to a cotton farming system, as research is showing with weed suppression and soil health,” Hayden said. “After harvest this year we will have fully analysed the data and will be in a position to offer a quantifiable effect on soil moisture.”
For more information, contact Hayden Petty
This article appears courtesy of the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC). It was published in the Autumn 2020 edition of CRDC’s Spotlight magazine: www.crdc.com.au/spotlight. Images courtesy Tom Quigley and Hayden Petty.