A Michigan’s Upper Peninsula farmer uses buckwheat to improve low fertility clay soils

An old idea re-emerges from a western Upper Peninsula red clay farm.

At a recent western Upper Peninsula Michigan State University Extension meeting focusing on forage production, the use of cover crops in forage systems was discussed. Michigan farmers in the far north are interested in improving soil health and fertility by growing cover crops, but are hampered by short, cool growing seasons and a limited list of practical crop rotations. In short, there just isn’t enough time after fall harvest to allow a cover crop to develop adequately. Nevertheless, some farmers find ways to use cover crops, or green manure crops, economically and with good success.

One such beef and hay farmer from Pelkie, Mich., related his own experiences with buckwheat on red clay soils, purely anecdotal, but interesting nevertheless. He decided the time had come to plow and reseed a hayfield. A common practice in his area is to kill old sod with glyphosate in fall and moldboard plow. The following spring, the field is disked, limed, fertilized and fitted for seeding. A small grain, usually oats, is planted with hay underseeding.

This farmer decided to try something different and planted buckwheat in an effort to improve soil health. The buckwheat was allowed to go to seed and then worked into the soil. A second crop of buckwheat emerged from seed set by the first crop soon after tilling. It was allowed to grow to a height of 1 to 2 feet and then was disked into the soil. A couple of weeks after disking in the second crop, winter wheat was sown to be used for fall and spring forage. During later spring of the second year, the farmer planted his oat crop with hay underseeding. Planting the oats later than the optimum planting date was not a problem since the oats were removed for forage, not harvested for grain.

His impression was that the clay soil structure and fertility was significantly improved by this rotation and that his hay seeding was very successful and productive. Of course, this information was not generated by a replicated, scientific process and is not offered here as an MSU Extension recommendation, but does provide food for thought.

How could two, back-to-back crops of buckwheat worked into a low-fertility clay soil make a big enough difference in a following crop to pay for itself? A few considerations:

  • A farmer must be able to get along with a one-year delay in establishment of the new hay seeding. Utilizing the winter annual grain crop (winter wheat or rye) as forage helps fill this gap.
  • The improvement in crop yield and quality following the year of buckwheat must justify the expense of the practice. This farmer was convinced that the enhancement in his new hay seeding more than justified the expense of the buckwheat green manure treatment.
  • This farmer used the terms loose and crumbly to describe his clay soil following the incorporation of his second buckwheat crop. He used the words “hard as a rock” to describe the soil along the field border that was also plowed and disked, but without the buckwheat treatment. An experienced farmer can tell when soils are different.

The effectiveness of buckwheat as a weed suppressing cover crop and soil conditioner are well documented. For more information on buckwheat, see “Alternative Field Crops Manual: Buckwheat” published by University of Wisconsin Extension and University of Minnesota Extension.

For more information, contact Jim Isleib, U.P. crop production educator, at 906-387-2530.

Did you find this article useful?

You Might Also Be Interested In