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How Cover Crops Benefit Soils

Taking advantage of one of agriculture's most powerful tools.

In recent years, agricultural researchers and farmers have increasingly focused on the importance of soil health. As the health of the soil-which includes factors like organic matter, porosity and nutrient levels -ties directly to a crop's resulting yield, smart growers strive to keep their soils in the best condition possible. One common method row crop farmers employ is the use of cover crops.

Advantages of Good Cover

A cover crop of Daikon Radishes in a fieldCover crops enrich soil health in a number of different ways. First of all, they help reduce pollution by decreasing erosion. "Having a cover crop in the field holds the soil in place so that erosion is greatly reduced,"says Brett Reese, Agronomist with Southern States.
In addition, cover crops help capture nutrients and keep them in the soil, says Reese. "Some cover crops will act like a scavenger; they will take up extra nutrients and hold on to them for the next crop to use."

Cover crops keep essential biologicals in the soil as well by allowing beneficial organisms to thrive. Also, continual growing in a field can help reduce soil sealing and compaction.

How To Use Cover Crops

The best cover crops for your field can depend on your individual situation, but typically a mix is best. "A more diverse population of cover crops leaves you with more microbe growth, which is ideal,"Reese says.

A standard mix will include a cereal crop of wheat, oats, cereal rye or rye grass. This forms the base that will hold the soil in place. The mix could also include a brassica like mustard, turnip or radish when possible. Root crops and rye grass help with the soil structure and compaction, and some brassicas have anti pathogenic properties.

If you are planting soybeans next in your rotation, try to limit cover crop mixes containing high nitrogen yielding legumes. "A legume like vetch has the potential to carry over too much nitrogen for soybeans,"Reese says.

The best time to plant cover crops is immediately after harvest. Unfortunately, depending on the first freeze, you might need to plant before then or alter your mix. For instance, tillage radish needs to be in the ground at least 45 days before becoming safe from the first freeze. You can use a high clearance spreader in beans if the crop is still standing and you need to plant a cover crop early, but keep in mind that harvest needs to be soon after seeding to allow for sunlight to reach the seedlings.

New Cover Crop Research at Southern States

Southern States has been increasing its research on the benefits of cover crops in row crop operations in the southeastern U.S. "We have been working with farmers going through the USDA cost share program to test different mixes to see what works best,"Reese says. By looking at yield monitor data, satellite imagery and soil tests, researchers can compare varieties, rates and planting dates to find how to best use cover crops. 

"In addition, we're looking to the Midwest for recommendations on cover crops to work with row crops, but making adjustments according to conditions in the South,"says Reese.

The goals of the cover crop research include better nutrient utilization, improved general soil health and increased yield. So far, the results have been favorable, says Reese. "We have seen more earthworms and increased yield, for example."

For more information on cover crops, contact your local Southern States Agronomy Professional.

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