In agriculture, a cover crop is a mixture of seeds planted primarily to manage soil erosion, add organic matter, and increase soil fertility.
Randy Svitak and his son, Shane Svitak, both of Lincolnville, began to use cover crops two years ago. Following wheat harvest last spring, they decided to try combining sunflowers with a cover crop for a double benefit.
They were basing their experiment on reports from other farmers across the state who had done it with good results.
“I’m not sure if it’s the thing to do,” Randy Svitak said. “It is supposed to increase the yield, but if the yield is lower, we may not do it again.”
About 650 of the 800 acres planted to cover crops include sunflowers used to produce sunflower oil.
“We use a special brand of sunflowers that is supposed to be healthy,” Svitak said.
The cover-crop mixture contains about 10 varieties of plants, including mung beans, turnips, cowpeas, lentils, African cabbage, collards, rapeseed, mustard, sugar beets, and flax.
The seeds were put in the ground in two different ways. On some acres, sunflower seed was mixed with cover-crop seed and sown with a drill. On other acres, the cover-crop mixture was sown with a drill, and the sunflower seed was incorporated using a planter.
“It (the latter) meant two trips across the field, but the sunflowers planted with a planter produced a better stand than those sowed with the other crops,” Svitak said.
Haygrazer was incorporated into one field. Svitak said it grew so tall that it crowded out the other plants. Cattle are grazing the field.
Buckwheat, a white-flowering plant, was included in the cover crop because it is supposed to eliminate head moths in sunflowers. Svitak wasn’t sure if it was working because head moths haven’t been a problem in any sunflower fields this year.
Shane Svitak said the root crops — turnips, beets, and radishes — send roots deep into the soil to retrieve and use the nitrogen that has gone so deep it can’t be used by regular grain crops. The roots pulverize the soil and add organic matter.
The legumes in the mixture add nitrogen to the soil.
The men plan to harvest all of their sunflowers regardless of stand. They said the heads are huge where the stand is thin.
After the sunflowers are harvested, some of the remaining plants will be used for cattle to graze, and some will be left in the fields to freeze down. Corn and beans will be planted into the fields next spring.
The sunflowers will be back-hauled to Lamar, Colorado, for processing, using trucks transporting wheat from out west to Kansas City.
The men said cover-crop seed is expensive, and cover crops don’t pay off right away in terms of improved soil.
“We probably won’t see the results for a few years,” Shane Svitak said. “It’s a long-term thing.”