Have you heard expression – “everything old is new again”? That same expression can describe the “new” use of cover crops in today’s successful farming. The practice of using cover crops was employed for many years, but had declined since the first half of the 20th century. With the development of herbicides, many farmers transitioned away from growing cover crops in the 1950s. We can now announce the return of a well-known adage: cover crops save soil. We can now begin to see that the benefits of cover crops enjoyed by previous generations is again being embraced by a new generation.
What factors turned the trend around? Recently a focus on soil quality and reducing the application of chemicals has led to a renewed interest in the benefits of cover crops in an agricultural production system. The main reasons to implement cover crops into a land management system include slowing erosion, improving soil health, enhancing water infiltration, smothering weeds, and increasing biodiversity.
Whether your focus is conserving resources, improving the environment, or enhancing your bottom line, the use of cover crops has a wealth of benefits. Let’s take look at some of the advantages.
The future success of farming and our food supply depends on keeping the topsoil we still have. Cover crops are exceptional at helping stop erosion. They hold on to topsoil by providing coverage of the soil surface and protecting it from wind and rain. Soil structural integrity is strengthened with increased rooting, with the additional benefit of increases water filtration. On average, cover crops reduced sediment losses from erosion by 20.8 tons per acre on conventional-till fields.
Evidence is mounting that cover crops improve moisture availability in the face of increasingly erratic weather. Too wet in the spring? Cover crops take up water and usually allow you onto the field earlier than if you did not have a cover crop growing. Alternatively, if facing drought or practicing dryland farming, cover crops still help boost yields while being very efficient with water use. Added carbon and root channels, in addition to increased soil pore space, help improve soil water-holding capacity—in any tillage system.
Cover crops maintain and improve soil fertility in several ways. Providing organic matter is an important long-term effect. Cover crops contribute indirectly to overall soil fertility and health by catching nutrients before they can leach out of the soil profile. In the case of legumes, they add nitrogen to the soil. Their roots can even help unlock some nutrients in the soil, converting them to more available forms.
Prevent Runoff Pollution
Nitrogen can be lost from agricultural fields in runoff water and groundwater. This displaced nitrogen may then travel into waterways and cause imbalances in the nutrient levels of these sensitive ecosystems. So how can cover crops help? They scavenge soil nitrogen and prevent it from being leached. In addition, they provide natural sources of nitrogen to cash crops and thus reduce the amount of fertilizer needed for production. Phosphorus can also be transported to waterways by above- or below-ground water flows. Studies show that cover crops reduced total phosphorus loads in water samples by 15% to 92%.
Cover crops are an important soil carbon sequestration strategy. The roots and shoots of cover crops feed bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other soil organisms, increases soil carbon levels over time. Some farmers think of this sequestration as “restoring” their soil carbon to the level that it was before cultivation. Others are calling themselves “carbon farmers”. Some are even expressing the importance of soil health in general by referring to their responsibility to care for the “herds” of microorganisms in the soil.
Generally, the more plant diversity in a field and the longer that living roots are growing. With more biodiversity there will be in soil organisms, leading to healthier soil. Growing mixes of cover crops or adding a few different cover crop species to an overall crop rotation—such as cereal rye before soybeans, and oats, radishes or crimson clover before corn—improves diversity. Many Corn Belt commodity farmers are adding a third cash crop to their rotation, usually a small grain such as wheat. They then use the earlier harvest of wheat to grow a more diverse mix of covers for several months. They sometimes graze those cover crop mixes for extra profit and because animal manure benefits soil biology.
Feed Grazing Animals
Beef cattle and other livestock typically remain in pastures and out of crop fields, which is not ideal for soil health. Integrating livestock with cover crops can be a major plus for long-term soil health. The urine, manure and saliva from grazing animals all contribute to soil biology. This is not surprising given that our soils, whether prairie or forest, evolved with herbivores impacting the soil biology. In fact, there is some evidence that grazing cover crops, may be one of the fastest ways of building soil organic matter and soil biology. It is also a great way to get immediate profit from cover crops! Certain cover crop species can be very high-quality forage in late fall or early spring.
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