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Cover Crops


When it comes to efficiently utilizing nutrients, improving soil quality, and increasing farm profitability, many growers rely on cover crops as a valuable tool in their farm management system. Cover crops offer benefits for agriculture that include:

  • Erosion control
  • Reduced compaction and nutrient leaching
  • Increased water infiltration
  • Improved soil biodiversity
  • Weed control and disease suppression
  • Increased carbon sequestration and maximum nutrient recycling
  • Improved air, soil, and water quality
  • Wildlife enhancement

Understanding how to get the maximum benefit out of these plants can agronomically help your fields and your bottom line.

Cover Crops: Why Bother?

Cash crops occupy the soil for only a portion of the year. Cover crops provide many benefits during the off-season. It may seem easier and more cost-effective to let the ground lie fallow, but experts suggest that giving the ground a rest can actually harm future crops. By leaving fields un-sown, growers provide an opportunity for winter weeds to grow uncontrolled and nutrients to leech freely into groundwater. Fallow fields also propagate pathogen and pests' life cycles by leaving their winter haven undisturbed.

For many decades, cover crops primarily have been used to prevent the severe soil erosion that winter and spring rains can bring if soils are left bare. It is also widely recognized that regularly using winter cover crops instead of leaving the ground bare and fallow over the winter, can provide carbon to build, or at least slow the decline of soil organic matter.

While they can't eliminate chemical or mechanical control costs, cover crops have a proven record of improving soil health with the added benefit, in some cases, of providing an extra cash crop in the off-season. For these reasons, many agronomists view cover crops as an essential tool in managing farmland for long-term sustainability.

How Cover Crops Work

An important benefit cover crops provide growers is pest and pathogen reduction. Pests and pathogens typically tailor their life cycles to specific plants or groups of plants. By planting cover crops and rotating crops across seasons, growers provide their soil with a host-free period, which helps to starve out pests and pathogens and reduces disease and pest problems from year to year. Cover crops also reduce weeds by out-competing would-be interlopers for nutrients and space.

By blanketing the ground with their tangle of root systems holding firm to the soil's surface, cover crops can prevent water and nutrients from leeching into the groundwater. For example, small-grain winter crops scavenge nutrients left in the soil post-harvest. When it's time to plant, growers recycle these nutrients, making them available to crops by incorporating them right back into their fields. All of this adds up to richer soil for cash crop cultivation.

Selecting the Right Plants

While cover crops can work wonders for cultivation, a grower can hurt his or her yield by selecting the wrong plants. For example, if plants are closely related and share pests, cover crops can provide a year-round reservoir for those pests. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants should not be rotated with one another. Instead, growers should consider implementing crops like soybeans, cotton, peanuts, corn or pasture grasses into rotation with those plants.

Growers should also consider "herbicide carryover", where chemicals applied to help one crop can negatively affect the next crop planted in that field. Southern States representatives can discuss choosing cover crop-friendly herbicides or selecting appropriate cover crops to beat herbicide carryover.

Many growers select winter rye to cover fallow fields in the off-season because it's cold-hardy and offers an array of benefits from controlling erosion and reducing soil compaction to increasing soil nitrogen levels. Others use red clover to fix nitrogen and suppress weeds. Buckwheat fixes nitrogen, and fall mustard suppresses weeds. Another option is the Eco-Till Soilbuster Radish ,a new Daikon type forage radish specifically developed for fall/winter cover crop applications.

Cover crops offer many benefits to growers that can increase farm profitability and environmental sustainability. Each cover crop has a niche or special purpose. Contact a Southern States Professional to help tailor a cover crop plan that will align with your farming operation's needs.


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