11.18.15 / ADMIN
The 411 on Cover Crops
By Kate Lambert
Kate and her husband farm in north-central Missouri where they raise their two boys, row crops, cattle and sheep. Kate also blogs at www.UptownGirlBlog.com.
When my husband, Matt, came back to the family farm after graduating from college, he brought with him two degrees and an ambition to apply what he had studied. He was particularly excited by cover crops and their ability to help us reduce chemical and fertilizer use, improve soil health and increase our overall sustainability.
My father-in-law is innovative – one of the first in the area to switch to no-till practices years ago, so he was intrigued by the results Matt told him about. Like most farmers, they both wanted to improve the bottom line, but most importantly, they wanted to preserve the health of the farm for future generations.
A cover crop is planted in between cash crops (corn and soybeans in our case), to keep the soil covered in the off-season. After harvest, we plant a combination of seeds that includes radishes, turnips, grasses and more. We plant these seeds into the corn or soybean stubble, or the stalks and leaves left in the field by the previous crop. Within a few days, the plants start to emerge. Within a few weeks, the fields are covered in a sea of green leaves – varying from the thin blades of the grasses to the broad leaves of the turnips and radishes.
Keeping the soil covered minimizes weed growth, leading to drastic reduction in chemical usage. The cover also reduces water loss from evaporation and helps to maintain a more constant soil temperature.
Even more exciting is what is going on below the surface. The roots of those cover crops are growing several feet down into the ground. This breaks up soil compaction, making room for oxygen and water to penetrate. They also provide a nutrient source for earthworms and thousands of microorganisms that we need for our soil to thrive.
The roots are also working overtime to make other nutrients, like nitrogen, more available from deep within the ground. When the cover crops finish growing, the plants will remain right there, decaying in our soil, putting back organic matter and nutrients as they break apart.
After a half decade of using cover crops, there is not a more beautiful sight than the uneven stand of green clover scattered across our fields after harvest. When I look at the fields, I know those crops are hard at work rebuilding our soil in ways we never dreamed possible.
Conventional farms across the country are taking to the science of cover crops because they are seeing results exactly like my family has. We have reduced our chemical and fertilizer use on some fields by over 30 percent and seen yield increases in excess of 25 percent. Most important to our family is the knowledge that we are actively protecting the long-term health of our farm so that my children can raise their families here as well!