Profitable Practices: Planting cover crops with PEI potato grower Andrew Lawless

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Potato farmers on Prince Edward Island have increased their use of cover crops dramatically over the last five years.

PEI farmers have been measuring the growth and impact of cover crops through participation in Living Lab — Atlantic, a four-year innovation project on the island that involves researchers and industry stakeholders.

Living Lab data shows participating farmers planting cover crops saw up to a 30 percent reduction in soil erosion and up to a 40 percent reduction in soil nitrates in the root zone where cover crops were planted. Participants also realized a 10 percent yield increase in the year following a cover crop. Based on these results PEI Potato Board research and agronomy specialist Ryan Barrett says a $25 to $50 per acre investment could lead to more than a $500 per acre return on investment from increased potato yields.

On this episode of Profitable Practices, RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin visits with Kinkora, PEI, farmer Andrew Lawless to report on his cover crop experience and how the practice has taken root on the Island.

Lawless, who runs Hilltop Produce Ltd. with his family, farms 1,000 acres of potatoes in a three-year rotation along with small grains and cover crops. He says weather extremes make it increasingly important to keep soil covered for erosion control, soil health, sustainability and overall profitability. (Story continue after the video.)

Hilltop Produce has been participating in cover crop research for a decade and Lawless has used research results to craft a  strategy for his farm that includes specific cover species, planting dates and which cover crops are best suited to follow particular crops.

In the spring, Lawless typically plants sorghum-sudangrass and mustard, which helps fight troublesome wireworm. Tillage radish is also a favourite for its ability to hold soil together and eliminate erosion.

Lawless notes that a great deal of erosion can occur after potato harvest — that’s a challenge he tackles with winter wheat that can hopefully make it through for a cash crop the following year. Barley is also spread on newly-harvested potato ground. After the potato harvest the goal is to have 100 per cent of the farm in cover crops.

“Having the ground covered is a big win for us,” says Lawless. He notes that growing potatoes is not cheap and cover crops presents a tremendous opportunity to reduce inputs by five or ten percent and increase yield by 10 percent. “That’s a great opportunity for farmers,” he adds.

Tap here for more Profitable Practices episodes.

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