Cover crops can boost soil water and protect the soil for higher crop yields

Take home messages

  • Cover crops can increase fallow water storage, and improve crop performance and returns in northern farming systems
  • In each experiment, a cover crop treatment provided the highest plant available soil water by the end of the fallow
  • The best cover crop treatment depended on the length of the fallow. A later spray-out, with more resilient cover, was best in the longer fallow. However, delaying spray-out too long had a dramatic effect on water storage
  • Cover crop saved 2-3 fallow herbicide sprays and dramatically improved establishment at one of the sites
  • Yields and returns were increased by the best cover crop treatment at each trial, but yield effects appear to be in excess of those expected from the increased soil water storage
  • Biology effects must be considered carefully; white French millet cover crops in the northern region have previously been shown to dramatically increase mycorrhizal colonisation of wheat (good), increase free-living nematodes (good), increase cellulase activity and bacterial abundance from additional fresh crop residues (good), but also increase root-lesion nematode populations (bad).

Cover crops in the northern region

Cover crops are not new. They have been used (mostly) by organic and low-input growers to protect the soil from erosion in low stubble situations, return biomass that helps maintain soil organic matter and biological activity, and to provide additional nitrogen when legumes are used.

However, growing cover crops uses water, and storing Plant Available Water (PAW) is ‘king’ in northern farming systems; only 20-40% of the northern region’s rainfall is typically transpired by dryland crops, up to 60% of rainfall is lost to evaporation, and a further 5-20% is lost in runoff and deep drainage. Every 10 mm of extra stored soil water available to crops could increase dryland grain yields by up to 150 kg/ha, with corresponding benefits to dryland cotton growers as well. So, growing crops that do not produce grain or fibre is understandably considered ‘wasteful’ of both rainfall and irrigation water.

Yet, research is now supporting growers’ experience that cover crops can provide many of their benefits with little or no net loss of soil water at the end of the fallow period. GRDC’s Eastern Farming Systems project and Northern Growers Alliance (NGA) trials have both shown that cover crops and increased stubble loads can reduce evaporation, increase infiltration and provide net gains in plant available water over traditional fallow periods. This suggests cover crops may be a key part of improved farming systems; providing increased productivity, profitability and sustainability.

The science of stubble and evaporation

Retained stubble provides ground cover that protects the soil from rainfall impacts and so improves infiltration to store more water in the soil. Conventional wisdom is that increased stubble loads can slow down the initial rate of evaporation, but that these gains are short-lived and lost from accumulated evaporation after several weeks. However, further rain within this period and the manipulation of stubble to concentrate stubble loads in specific areas, provide an opportunity to reduce total evaporation and to accumulate more plant available water.

In southern Queensland and northern NSW, cover crops are used to overcome a lack of stubble and protect the soil following low residue crops (e.g. chickpea, cotton) or following skip-row sorghum with uneven stubble and exposed soil in the ‘skips’.

Growers typically plant white French millet or sorghum and spray them out within ~60 days to allow recharge in what are normally long fallows across the summer to the next winter crop. Allowing these ‘cover crops’ to grow through to maturity led to significant soil water deficits and yield losses in subsequent winter crops. However, the Eastern Farming Systems project showed only small deficits (and even water gains) accrued to the subsequent crops when millets were sprayed out after 6 weeks, with average grain yield increases of 0.36 t/ha. Furthermore, the Northern Growers Alliance showed that the addition of extra stubble (from 5-40 t/ha) after winter crop harvest appeared to reduce evaporation, with initial studies showing between 19 mm and 87 mm increases in plant available water. These gains will be valuable if validated in further research and captured in commercial practice.

Our current project is monitoring sites intensively to quantify the impact of different stubble loads on the accumulation of rainfall, the amount of water required to grow cover crops with sufficient stubble loads, the net water gains/losses for the following crops and the impacts on their growth and yield. This paper reports on the first two sites in southern Queensland, which will be used in simulation/modelling later in the project to assess the wider potential and economic impacts of cover crops in both grain and cotton production systems.

Experiment 1 – Yelarbon (pivot-irrigated cotton, short fallowed to pivot irrigated cotton)

The Yelarbon experiment was on a pivot-irrigated paddock that grew cotton in 2016/17. The crop was picked and root cut in May, before offset discs were used on 12 June 2017 to pupae-bust and to level wheel tracks of the pivot irrigator. Nine cover treatments (Table 1) with five replicates were planted on the same day using barley (100 plants/m2), barley and vetch mixtures (30 plants/m2 each) and tillage radish (30 plants/m2). Rain that night aided establishment, and the surrounding paddock was planted two weeks later to wheat for stubble cover.

Three planned termination times matched key growth stages of the main cereal treatments: Early-termination at first node (Z31) when the crop begins stem development; Mid-termination at flag leaf emergence (Z41) when the reproductive phase begins; and Late-termination at anthesis (Z65) for peak biomass production. Biomass of the cover crop treatments at their relevant termination times ranged from 1166 kg dry matter (DM)/ha (early) to 8175 kg DM/ha when the crop was grown through to grain harvest (Table 1).

The subsequent cotton crop was planted on 15 November 2017 and irrigated on a schedule determined by the surrounding wheat crop that was harvested for grain. We included a ‘grain harvest’ treatment in our experimental plots to align with the farmer’s practice. Above ground biomass was also monitored across the growth of the cover crops until termination and through the subsequent fallow. Establishment was counted in all plots and hand cuts used to estimate cotton yields.

Table 1. Cover treatments applied at the Yelarbon site prior to planting cotton

Treatment

Cover crop

Termination time

Biomass (kg/ha)

1.

Control (Bare)

  

2.

Cereal

Early-sprayout

1166

3.

Cereal

Mid-sprayout

4200

4.

Cereal

Late-sprayout

5104

5.

Cereal

Mid-sprayout + Roll

4200

6.

Cereal

Grain harvest

8175

7.

Cereal + legume

Mid-sprayout

4928

8.

Cereal + legume

Late-sprayout

4149

9.

Tillage radish

Mid-sprayout

4692

Soil water

Soil water was estimated using soil cores to measure gravimetric soil water at key times across the fallow and the subsequent cotton, along with regular neutron moisture meters (NMM) and EM38 readings in each plot. These NMM and EM38 readings and the percentage ground cover were recorded every two-to-four weeks while the cover crops were growing, and every four weeks once all cover crops were terminated, and until canopy closure of the following cotton was achieved. Final EM38 and NMM readings were recorded at cotton defoliation.

The water cost of growing the barley cover crops, relative to the control treatment in the early stages of the fallow was ~40 mm for the early-termination, ~70 mm for the mid-termination and ~120 mm for the late-termination (Figure 1). However, by the end of the fallow, and a subsequent 170 mm of rainfall/irrigation in 8 events from mid-termination to cotton plant, the mid-termination treatment caught up to the control, and the early-termination had accumulated an additional 14 mm of water. Not surprisingly, this early-termination proved to be the best cover crop treatment on the short fallow. The crop that continued to harvest was ~145 mm behind by the end of the fallow. This treatment mirrored the wider paddock and so set the following pivot irrigation schedule.

Crop performance

The irrigation schedule matched to the harvested crop provided more than adequate water across the cover crop treatments and yields for all cover crop treatments were similar. However, the Control with limited ground cover was the poorest performer, with ~3 bales/ha lower yield, lower infiltration in early growth stages and less extraction of water late in the crop.

The nominal costs to plant the cover crops ($50/ha) and to spray them out ($20/ha) were almost matched by the savings from three less fallow weed sprays ($60); so the measured cotton yield responses were very profitable. For grain growers, the extra 14 mm stored moisture from the early-termination cover crop would typically produce ~200 kg/ha grain in wheat at a water use efficiency of 15 kg grain/mm water, which is worth ~$50/ha (at $270/t) and would produce an overall return of $40/ha. Any further possible benefits from cover crops, which appear to have occurred in the cotton crop, have not been included.

This is a line graph showing the changes in soil water (mm to 90 cm) from planting of key cover crop treatments until defoliation of the subsequent cotton crop at Yelarbon.

Figure 1. Changes in soil water (mm to 90 cm) from planting of key cover crop treatments until defoliation of the subsequent cotton crop at Yelarbon

Table 2. Net change in water storage over the life of the fallow (relative to the Control) and final cotton yield for each cover crop treatment at Yelarbon.

Treatment

Cover crop

Terminated

Water gain

(cf control)

Cotton yield (bales/ha)

1.

Control (bare)

Starting water ~100mm PAW

56 mm

(fallow gain)

9.3

2.

Cereal

Early

+14 mm

12.9

3.

Cereal

Mid

-1 mm

12.7

4.

Cereal

Late

-14 mm

11.9

5.

Cereal

Mid + Roll

-2 mm

12.6

6.

Cereal

Harvest

-111 mm

14.1

7.

Cereal + legume

Mid

-16 mm

11.9

8.

Cereal + legume

Late

-7 mm

13.9

9.

Tillage radish

Mid

-40 mm

14.4

Experiment 2 – Bungunya (Skip-row sorghum, long- fallowed to dryland wheat)

The Bungunya experiment was in a long-fallow paddock following skip-row sorghum harvested in early February 2017. The paddock had deep phosphorus applied in August 2017 and was ‘Kelly-chained’ in September 2017 to level the paddock, which left it with little cover until the planned wheat crop. Cover crops were planted into ~120 mm of plant available soil water on 11 October. The subsequent wheat crop was planted on 1 May 2018, with hand cuts for yield done on 12 October and mechanical harvesting on 26 October. Soil water, cover crop and stubble biomass, ground cover, wheat establishment and yields were measured in the same way as the experiment at Yelarbon.

Table 3. Cover treatments applied at the Bungunya site prior to planting wheat

Treatment

Cover crop

Termination time

Biomass (kg/ha)

1.

Control (Bare)

  

2.

Millet (White French)

Early-sprayout

1533

3.

Millet (White French)

Mid-sprayout

2327

4.

Millet (White French)

Late-sprayout

4365

5.

Millet (White French)

Mid-sprayout + Roll

2476

6.

Millet (White French)

Late-sprayout + Roll

4737

7.

Sorghum

Mid-sprayout

2481

8.

Lab Lab

Mid-sprayout

1238

9.

Multi-species

(millet, lab lab, radish)

Mid-sprayout

1214

Soil water

The water cost of growing the millet cover crops, relative to the Control treatment in the early stages of the fallow was ~50mm for the early-termination, ~40 mm for the mid-termination and ~60 mm for the late-termination (Figure 2). The lab lab mid-termination treatment also cost ~60 mm to grow, relative to the Control treatment.  These figures reflect rainfall and different rates of infiltration between soil water measurements:

  • Plant to mid-termination, 65 mm in 3 events (12/10/17 to 22/11/17)
  • Mid-termination to plant, 205 mm in 11 events (22/11/17 to 1/5/18)
  • Follow crop plant to maturity 41mm in 3 events (1/5/18 to 10/10/18)
  • Follow crop maturity to soil sample 72mm in 7 events (10/10/18 to 5/11/18)

By early March, with a subsequent 175 mm of rain in ten falls after the mid-termination, the millet treatments had all recovered to have effectively the same soil water as the Control, except where the late-terminated millet was rolled; it had gained ~20 mm more water than the other treatments.

When the subsequent wheat crop was planted, the mid-terminated millet had ~14 mm more soil water than the Control treatment, the late millet ~19 mm more, and the late millet that was also rolled had ~36mm more soil water (Table 4). Interestingly, water extraction by the wheat crop was greater from all of the millet cover crop plots than the Control, which had lower yields; perhaps due to, or resulting in less root development.

Crop performance

All cover crop treatments increased the yield of the final wheat crop (Table 4) and saved two fallow weed sprays (~$40/ha). However, the biggest yield increases were from the cereal cover crops, especially the late-terminated millet and the sorghum.

The water differences at planting (end of the fallow) may explain some of the yield difference. However, the establishment of the wheat crop was dramatically better where cover crops were used, more so where cereals were used but also for lab lab. The expected yield increases from the higher fallow water storage alone would typically be ~200 kg grain in wheat (WUE 15 kg grain/mm water) for the mid-terminated millet (worth ~$50/ha), ~280 kg grain for the late millet (worth $75/ha) and ~540 kg grain for the late +rolled millet (worth $150/ha). These gains would represent net returns of $20/ha, $45/ha and $120/ha respectively. However, the measured yield gains for these treatments were 950 kg/ha, 1461 kg/ha and 1129 kg/ha respectively, representing increase returns of between $250 and $380 /ha.

This is a line graph showing the changes in soil water (mm to 90 cm) from planting of the millet cover crop treatments sprayed out at different crop growth stages until harvest of the later wheat crop at Bungunya.

Figure 2. Changes in soil water (mm to 90 cm) from planting of the millet cover crop treatments sprayed out at different crop growth stages until harvest of the later wheat crop at Bungunya

Table 4. Net change in water storage over the life of the fallow (relative to the Control) and final wheat yield for each cover crop treatment at Bungunya.

Treatment

Cover crop

Terminated

Water gain
(cf control)

Wheat yield
(kg/ha)

1.

Control (bare)

Starting water ~120mm PAW

42mm

(fallow gain)

1436f

2.

Millet (White French)

Early

+5 mm

2223 cd

3.

Millet (White French)

Mid

+14 mm

2386 bc

4.

Millet (White French)

Late

+19 mm

2897 a

5.

Millet (White French)

Mid + Roll

+17 mm

2359 bc

6.

Millet (White French)

Late + Roll

+36 mm

2565 b

7.

Sorghum

Mid

+17 mm

2634 ab

8.

Lab Lab

Mid

-4 mm

1795 e

9.

Multi-species

(millet, lab lab, radish)

Mid

+21 mm

1954 de

Potential biological impacts

These two experiments focused on soil water accumulation. Biological analysis was not undertaken, but some exploratory analyses will be included for selected treatments in future trials. However, past biological assessments on the Eastern Farming Systems project sites around Goondiwindi highlighted a range of biological effects following white French millet cover crops.

Mycorrhizal colonisation of roots in six-week-old wheat from 1.8% in the long-fallow following skip-row sorghum to 8.3% following an early terminated millet cover crop in the fallow (Seymour et al. 2006); crop growth was much stronger following the cover crop. Other positive biological effects included increases in free-living nematodes and cellulase activity that indicate a more active biological system with a greater food source from more residues; and increased Nematode Channel Ratios, which indicates greater bacterial activity from more disturbance and addition of higher quality residues (Table 5). Unfortunately, the white French millet cover crop also boosted root-lesion nematodes (Pratylenchus sp.), and so cover crop species must be selected carefully where root-lesion nematodes are a problem.

Table 5. Selected biological effects at wheat planting after a 15 month fallow from skip-row sorghum +/- a white French millet cover crop with different termination dates near Goondiwindi (Seymour et al. 2006)

District

Treatment

Pratylenchus
sp/g soil

Free living nematodes/g soil

Nematode channel ration
(0= fungal; 1= bacterial)

Cellulase assay

Lundavra

Fallow

0.64

0.58

0.39

0.21

 

Short-term millet

1.31

2.76

0.39

0.59

 

Mature millet

2.51

7.33

0.57

0.89

North Star

Fallow

0.92

0.65

0.52

0.03

 

Short-term millet

0.92

7.41

0.79

0.23

 

Mature millet

1.45

5.25

0.87

0.11

LSD

(P=0.05)

0.51

2.96

0.19

0.31

Conclusions

The project results show that cover crops can indeed help increase net water storage across fallows that have limited ground cover. Importantly, these results were achieved in drier than normal seasons. For example, the Bungunya site with millet cover crops had a wet spring that allowed a well grown cover crop to develop, but was then followed by well below average rainfall through the fallow, with a few good storms in February/March. How often these soil water results will occur across different seasons will be explored across the rest of the project with further experiments and simulation modelling.

However, more dramatic are the early yield results for the subsequent cotton and wheat crops at each site. These yield responses are very large and represent big improvements in returns; far beyond what could be expected from the increases in net soil water storage across the fallows. Wheat establishment dramatically improved in the Bungunya experiment, and there was greater water extraction (especially at depth) in the Yelarbon experiment. How much of the responses can be attributed to these factors, how often such results might occur, and the contributions of other factors to these gains remains to be explored.

Acknowledgements

The research undertaken in this project was possible through the significant contributions of growers through both trial cooperation and the support of the GRDC, the CRDC, DAF Queensland, CSIRO and DPINSW. The authors would like to thank them all for their continued support.  Special thanks to Glen Smith at ‘Koarlo’, David Woods at ‘Coorangy’, and the DAF Biometry, Technical and Research Infrastructure staff that supported the heavy management and monitoring loads of these experiments.

References

Seymour NP, Bell MJ, Price LJ, Stirling GR and Stirling AM (2006) Improving soil biology through using millet (Panicum mileaceum) as a short-term fallow cover crop.  4th Australasian Soilborne Diseases Symposium. Queenstown New Zealand. 3-6 September 2006

Contact details

David Lawrence
DAF Queensland, Tor Street, Toowoomba
Mb: 0429 001 759
Email: david.lawrence@daf.qld.gov.au

Andrew Erbacher
DAF Queensland, Lagoon Street, Goondiwindi
Mb: 0475 814 432
Email: andrew.erbacher@daf.qld.gov.au

GRDC Project code: DAQ00211