Digging In

Cover Crops: Extending the Life of the Soil

Cover Crops: Extending the Life of the Soil

By Lisa Kubik on Thursday, 26 September, 2019

In the farming community “cover crop” is a buzzword, and for good reason. Adding a cover crop to your farm means you are extending the amount of time there is something growing in that soil and that adds many other benefits.

The most apparent benefits of cover crops include the following:

Improve field conditions: What is an extra day of planting worth to you? What about spraying? Or harvesting? In some areas this spring, one extra day was the difference between planting a cash crop or coming back later with preventive planting. Many of our Soil Health Partnership (SHP) farmers say that due to their transition to a no-till (or strip-till) + cover crop system, they are often times in the field one to three days before their neighbors that till. 

Improve weed control: Herbicide programs can be expensive, but not controlling weeds can be even more costly to an operation. Some farmers have been able to reduce their herbicide use by utilizing a cover crop such as cereal rye. Increased rates and making sure the cover crop has lots of growth help to improve the amount of weeds it is able to control. One less trip applying an herbicide could help pay for your cover crop seed alone not including all of the other added benefits to your soil.

Reduce erosion: In the past year, there have been a number of large rainfall events all over the country that have lead to massive flooding and if you walked out in a field following one of those storms, also massive amounts of erosion. Whether you can find a new gully down a hillside or it looks like the rain took a sheet of soil right off the top of the field, it visually does not look good.  Especially after events like that, it is easy to see how beneficial a cover crop is to keep the soil in place. Even in small rain events, if you look closely you may see some signs of soil loss. Cover crops give your soil a shield so that next time a thunderstorm rolls through it will not take dump truck loads of your field’s soil with it.

Break-up compaction: Did you head to the field a little too early? With poor planting or harvest conditions, there is a good chance that some areas of compaction showed up in at least one of your fields. To fix those issues, many farmers would traditionally hit the compacted area with tillage. This may seem to break-up the soil but ends up doing more damage than good in many cases. When adding a cover crop, the roots get to work doing the tillage for you. Even with little growth, some covers can have roots go 3x as deep. Cereal rye may only get 6” tall but have 24” of root growth underground. Where and how much compaction you have will help you determine which cover crop will have the best root system to make improvements in your field.

Uptake excess nutrients: Nutrition is an important part of a cropping system and one of the larger input costs, too. If you could have insurance that your nutrients would stay in place, would you make that purchase? Nitrogen stabilizers are a great way to ensure that the nitrogen you apply stays put, but the additional nitrogen that may be mineralized throughout the summer, phosphorus, and sulfur may not be protected. Cover crops do a great job of taking up excess nutrients and will act as a slow-release fertilizer for the crop the next year as they decompose.  Bonus: Some legume cover crops will even fix their own nitrogen for your crop the next year.

Improve soil health: The use of cover crops on your farm can help improve soil health, but what does that mean? By improving soil health, we are able to increase the porosity, water holding capacity, and build the structure within the soil. With more pores within the soil, your crop’s roots are better able to proliferate and establish a good root system to support the plant throughout the entire growing season.  More pore spaces also mean that when the weather turns dry, the soil has a pore structure waiting to soak in the rainfall and store it until your crops are in need. With that water absorbing better within the soil, this also reduces the chance for ponding or flooding within the field which could eventually affect flooding downstream.

Increase grazing days: The more days you can graze cattle, the less of your stored feed you have to go through. Cover crops are not just beneficial for the agronomic part of the farm, but can also become beneficial feed for cows, calves, and even feeders or fats if managed correctly.  For many operations, just adding an additional week of grazing could add up to thousands in saved stored feed costs. Work with your cattle nutrition advisor to see how grazing cover crops can fit into your cattle operation.

Unsure of what cover crop to plant? Click here to review your options

Look for an SHP Field Manager in your area, and see how a cover crop might work in your cropping system.