HAYS—Fort Hays State University crop supervisor Harland Werth and his colleague Ryan States were set to cut 50 acres of wheat in a field at the corner of 230th Avenue and Golf Course Road last week near Hays.
The college farm, with more than 4,000-acres in a four-mile radius in Ellis County, has four full-time employees and a handful of student workers. The ground they work on is about 50-50 cropland and pasture.
During the summer, besides harvesting wheat, some of the university’s farm chores include swathing alfalfa, and taking care of 250 cow-calf pairs, as well as pigs, sheep and goats, Werth said.
And then there’s a small seven-acre field of cover crops to keep an eye on, planted into 14 test plots in partnership with Kauffman Seeds, Yoder.
Each plot is a crazy mix of as many as eight different plants classified as cover crops. These are non-cash crops, forming a blend that animals can graze and that improve the soil, add fertilizer in some cases, and reduce water run-off, according to Werth and States.
The spring cover crop plots include a variety of seed blends that were planted in late February or early March. Now growing vigorously are oats, field peas, triticale, hairy vetch, rape, cereal rye and barley.
"Two-row barley is for making beer," said States. "Six-row barley would be more for grain for forage, generally."
While cover crops are a relatively new farming practice, they are catching on. Some farmers plant them in the early spring, then kill them out before they plant corn, said States.
"That provides a lot of extra ground shading," he said, "and corn roots do better when they’re cool."
The FHSU farm and Kauffman have planted cover crops for about seven years, said Werth.
"What we’re finding out, we’re helping with soil health, we’re building organic matter, we’re building a nice sponge to help with water run-off, and also we’re covering the ground," said John Welch, the Kauffman Seed salesman in western Kansas who works with the FHSU farm.
They seem to reduce the need for weed-killer, Welch said.
"A weed won’t grow unless it has moisture and sunlight," he said. "It’ll help conserve moisture with the cover crop, but it shades the ground to where you have less weeds able to get to the sunlight for them to grow."
The benefit for farmers who plant after the cover crop is improved Nitrogen, reduced compaction or run-off, as well as other considerations.
"Everybody’s situation is different, we don’t have just one blend that works for everybody in every part of the state," Welch said. "We design them specifically for that location, for that farmer, and what he wants to do."
Kauffman is preparing blends now for planting into wheat stubble in the just-harvested fields. Then the the FHSU team will get to work studying fall cover crops.
Anyone is welcome to take a look at the cover crop test plots just south of the Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex, States said.