Cover crops can be an excellent tool for protecting and enhancing the overall health of your fields. While there can be some added upfront costs, such as purchasing seed, many farmers are utilizing cover crops within their operation because of the long-term benefits.
Here are some of the potential benefits of planting cover crops:
- Improved soil structure: this is the increase in organic matter in the field brought on by utilizing cover crop—it leads to enhanced soil health and decreased loss of soil moisture. Some cover crops also help the soil to sequester nitrogen.
- Environmental protection: Having a cover crop in the field can help with reduced soil erosion, also leading to less nonpoint-source pollution from leaching of fertilizers and enhanced water quality.
- Lowered input costs: Cover crops help suppress weeds and control diseases and insects, reduce potential herbicide and insecticide needs. Since the soil is more likely to hang on to fertilizers, as mentioned above, cover crops also help manage fertilizer costs.
Here are a few tips on getting the most out of your cover crop investment.
- Define Your Goals: You might utilize a cover crop to reduce soil erosion and provide additional forage for your livestock. You could put the practice into place to break up soil compaction and achieve deeper rooting for your next cash crop. Maybe you just want to increase your organic matter and sequester available nitrogen. While these are all possible outcomes, they may require a different starting point—seed, planting method or management plan—to get there. Set your goal early so you can make sure you take the best steps to benefit your operation.
- Understand Your Cover Crop Choices: Once you know what your goals are, you can decide your seed needs. Clover or hairy vetch could be a solution to a nitrogen fixation issue. Radishes can help break up soil compaction. Annual and perennial ryegrass may help slow erosion and provide groundcover. Give some thought to utilizing a mix of species in order to get the greatest benefit from planting cover crops. Also, try to avoid including a species in your cover crop mix that you may plant in your field in the next growing season, as this might allow an overwintering pest easier access to your upcoming crop.
- Make the Best Use of Your Timeline: Timing is key in cover crops. Some varieties may need more time to get established, so it is important to make sure you’re using your cover crop investment on the fields where it is the most likely to have a healthy start. For example, a cover crop like rye or wheat can be planted later in the season, whereas oats or crimson clover will need an earlier planting to get established. Consider when you anticipate harvesting a particular field and include that information in your decision-making process. In some cases, it may be possible to do an aerial seeding into your standing crop. This would be beneficial in cases where the crop is still in the field, but waiting to seed your cover crop could lead to poor establishment.
We asked FBN network farmers in a recent poll, “What percent of your acres will you plant to cover crops this winter?”
Here’s how you weighed in:
Let’s compare your responses to those from our poll in January of this year:
Sometimes, cover crops are seen as a “nice to have,” if you just happen to have the time and money to invest in a particular crop year. But with a little early planning, cover crops can become a fundamental part of your farming operation, offering your farm long-term benefits.