Cover crops are plants seeded into agricultural fields between harvest and planting of commercial crops with the purpose of improving or maintaining soil fertility. Benefits of cover crops are both environmental and agricultural. Environmentally, cover crops can enhance biodiversity, increase soil infiltration, leading to less flooding, leaching, and runoff, create wild life habitat, and attract honeybees and beneficial insects. For farming, they can reduce soil erosion, improve soil quality through increases in porosity (reduced compaction), soil organic matter, water holding capacity, beneficial microbes, and micro- and macro-invertebrates, retain nutrients that would otherwise be lost, add nitrogen, combat weeds, and break disease cycles. These benefits are accomplished without the use of chemical herbicides or at least with minimal use.
The main purpose of a cover crop is to benefit the soil and/or other crops, but is not intended to be harvested for feed or sale. Let’s take a look at a few of these benefits a little closer. When a plant establishes roots and grows into compacted areas, it provides several advantages. The roots break up compacted soil and improve water infiltration. It helps beneficial organisms such as earthworms thrive when fresh plant material is decomposing. Organic matter increases soil health. The cover crops reduce wind and water erosion by holding the soil in place during the fall, winter, and early spring between harvesting and planting. If legumes are used as a cover crop, they can add substantial amounts of available nitrogen to the soil. Non-legumes can be used to take up excess nitrogen from previous crops and recycle the nitrogen as well as available phosphorus and potassium to the following crop. With proper management of types of cover crops, the use of herbicides can be reduced or eliminated.
Other advantages are weed control and insect control. An important aspect to all these benefits is proper management. This includes what type of cover crop to use. The farmer needs to know the soil health of his farm. This will help determine what would best improve his soil. Timing is also extremely important when killing a spring growing cover crop. You want the cover crop to grow as long as possible in the spring to reap the nutritional benefits but not so long to hurt the following cash crop. Once the farmer understands his land and finds the proper balance of cash crops and cover crops, the economics of using cover crops can be calculated by the savings of purchased nutrients and herbicides versus the additional cost of using cover crops. Recent studies show increased use of cover crops help reduce the use of chemical products, improve organic matter content and enhance soil biology.
Use of cover crops by the farmer is a commitment to sustainable agriculture with minimal or no use of chemicals. This approach improves the sustainability of agro-ecosystem attributes and may also indirectly improve qualities of neighboring natural ecosystems. Farmers using cover crops in recent years have shown increases in harvest production and have fared better than other farmers during drought years. It is all about understanding your land and using nature’s plants to maintain and restore soil health. Having good soil health is not only good for the farmer but also good for Mother Earth.