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University researcher opens prairie cover crop survey

Callum Morrison uses an infiltrometer between two plots at the long-term cover cropping experiment in Carman, Man.

Fort Macleod and district farmers have an opportunity this fall to help research that will provide long-term benefit to agriculture on the prairies.

Callum Morrison, a 25-year-old PhD student at the University of Manitoba, is conducting an on-line survey on cover crops.

“The survey will directly benefit prairie farmers,” Morrison said in an interview. “Despite cover crops becoming increasingly popular in recent years there is still little information regarding how local farmers are using cover crops.”

Morrison said prairie farmers interested in cover crops have had to use data from the U.S.

While helpful, that data does not accurately reflect growing conditions on the prairies.

“The report that the survey will help create can be used as part of farmers decision making process by allowing them to see how cover crops are being adopted by farmers like them,” Morrison said. “The survey also gives respondents a voice to highlight areas for future research.”

Farmers have used cover crops for thousands of years as an effective way to increase nitrogen for cash crops and to reduce weeds long before synthetic fertilizers and synthetic herbicides were available.

“Cover crops became less popular as we entered modern farming,” Morrison said. “However, in recent years they have been becoming increasingly adopted by farmers in the prairies.”

Morrison is entering his second year as a PhD student at the University of Manitoba, investigating cover cropping in the Canadian prairies.

Part of Morrison’s research involves researching how — and why— prairie farmers are adopting cover crops.

Research is also being done on the effect of cover crops on cash crop yield, as well as on soil chemical, biological and physical properties.

Callum Morrison  kneels to read the soil moisture in a soybean plot in the long-term cover cropping experiment in Carman, Man.

Morrison’s interest in agriculture has deep family roots in Scotland, where he was raised.

His father worked for a company that produced virus potato mini-tubers and horticultural plantlets via tissue culture.

Morrison’s mother was a research scientist researching pests found on potatoes and fruit.

His grandfather worked on sugar cane and banana plantations in Trinidad and St. Lucia.

Morrison, who spent summers working at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, completed an undergraduate thesis at the University of Arkansas during a summer exchange.

“While there I travelled to see my pen pal who lived in Minneapolis,” Morrison said. “We decided that we should go to Fargo together and then decided we should go to Manitoba and attended the Winkler Harvest Festival. We had such a great time and made some friends.”

A farmer invited Morrison back to Manitoba for the harvest. That visit prompted Morrison to return a year later on a working holiday visa, working on a rotationally grazed beef operation and a canola breeding company.

Callum Morrison holds the single row seeder used to plant a tillage radish cover crop into soybeans when the soybean canopy closes.

Morrison returned home to study a masters researching a bacterium which infects potato.

Morrison wanted to return to the prairies to do something that was innovative and had potential to benefit farmers and the environment. He connected with Dr. Yvonne Lawley who became his professor.

“I have a strong interest in how farmers can become more sustainable,” Morrison explained. “Cover crops have the potential to benefit both farmers and the environment.”

“I also thought it was an interesting time to be studying cover crops in the prairies. It was — and still is — something that had a lot of momentum and there was a lot of opportunity for research as the practice became more widespread.”

Responses to the survey will be compiled in an annual report distributed free of charge.

Farmers can ensure they get a copy of the report by taking the survey and leaving an e-mail address.

The report will also be posted on the Web site and will be distributed to commodity groups and growers’ associations. 

The report will include a summary of the overall findings with sub-sections in which  results are broken down into farm type, such as organic, livestock and tillage, and also, by major cash crops such as oats, spring wheat and canola.

“This is to make the survey as specific and relevant as possible to prairie farmers thinking about growing a cover crop or those interested in how prairie farmers are using cover crops,” Morrison said.

Last year the survey had 211 responses from across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  

“For this 2020 survey we are also looking for respondents who did not grow a cover crop,” Morrison said. 

The Prairie Cover Crop Survey is at

A barley-pea cover crop mix which follows canola in the long-term cover cropping experiment in Carman, Man.