This trip didn’t get off to a good start, and I hadn’t realised until just now it was the 13th day of my travelling. The following annoyances occurred the evening before my flight,
- US sim card failed to turn up in the post (ordered three weeks previously)
- New phone case was delivered – but was for the wrong phone (my fault)
- Departure terminal changed – my bus ticket was now for the wrong place
- I realised that I booked a rental car to be returned on July 3rd not July 4th when my flight returns. As July 4th is the biggest holiday in the US, Hertz want another £700 to extend for one more day. Interesting, and currently unresolved.
Anyway, the flight was fine, and customs was painless. One small hitch came when I picked up my rental car and the cigarette lighter didn’t work, so my sat-nav was non-functional. There was another car at hand though, and I swapped into that one.
My stay in the US was short lived, as I immediately crossed the border into Canada and drove two hours east to see a fellow Nuffield Scholar, Blake Vince. This again was a painless journey. Unfortunately my bad luck had not quite run out. After getting out of the car and saying hello to Blake, I went to get my bags out, only to find an empty boot. What kind of an idiot swaps rental cars and takes only one of their bags with them? (Me). I decided against a 4 hour round trip to get the suitcase back, and went to buy some clothes to tide me over until I pass Detroit again in a few days. Hopefully that is enough cretinous behaviour, for this trip at least.
Blake is a 5th generation farmer, who is working with his dad and uncle on 1200ac of pretty heavy, wet clay. Their typical rotation is maize, soybeans twice, and then winter wheat. They have been almost exclusively no-till for the last thirty years, and recently started experimenting with cover crops. The climate is very continental – extremely cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. This shows itself fairly clearly in the yields they get; 11.5t/ha of maize and 6.5t/ha of wheat (and 4t/ha of soybeans). Rainfall is the limiting factor, made especially acute with such hot periods during summer.
Wheat is harvested in July, and maize is only planted in late April or May. This 9 month window is a perfect spot for cover crops, but on most farms the fields are left bare. Blake is experimenting with several different mixes, but on most of the farm he has used an 11 way blend consisting of
- Hairy vetch
- Cereal rye
- Crimson clover
- Austrian winter pea
- Faba beans
- Sun hemp
- Daikon radish
- Wheat (volunteers)
Because of the hot temperatures when this is drilled, the warm season plants grow very fast to begin with, but then die over winter. In the spring all that is left is the rye, clover and vetch. We are often told that vetch will die at -8C, but it never seems to happen on our farm; this vetch survived -20C for several weeks, which explains a lot.
These three surviving species come into spring at about ankle height, but as soon as it warms up, the rye will grow 2-3 feet in six weeks, whilst the legumes bulk out again. Incidentally, Blake reckons on them fixing over 50kg/ha of nitrogen in the 9 months they are in the ground.Next the cover is sprayed off with glyphosate, atrazine, and another one I can’t remember. Don’t forget, all of these guys are using roundup-ready maize & soybeans, so they need to stack herbicides just to clear the field. The maize is then planted straight into the green cover with a standard double disc opener. Slot closure perhaps left something to be desired, but they don’t seem to worry so much about that over here.
Finally, the field is rolled with a crimper roller to lay the cover into a protective mat over the soil, and also help to kill any plants that were missed by the spray. The roller is a great idea, but it really only works on plants that have started stem extension, which we cannot always count on. This system is really crying out of the rollers to be mounted on the front of the drill tractor so it can be done in one pass.
Blake has tried out a few different mixes for his cover crops side by side. In one trial, which contained radish and peas, the seed ran out before all the ground was drilled, there is a picture of this above. In the un-drilled section there is significantly more volunteer wheat, which is presumably due to the lack of shading from the radish leaves. To me this is a possible reason for using placed started fertiliser on OSR at home – even if it does not result in higher yield, the leaf cover may help to significantly suppress weeds.
By this point it’s 2am in the UK, and time for my bed.