Written by Jonna Castanos
One of the most beneficial organic farming practices you can implement into your operation are cover crops. According to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), cover crops are used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity. Cover crops keep the soil “covered” while they’re growing and also with their residue after they die.
Cover crops increase yield and are a profitable long-term investment. Many farmers are able to see yield benefit after just one year of using cover crops and then will continue to see improvement in soil health after having them several years in rotation. In a drought year, farmers reported yield increases where they used cover crops: 9.6% in corn and 11.6% in soybeans.
But which cover crop do you choose? Well, it depends on your soil, climate, grow zone, equipment, and so on. Legumes and grasses are the most common, but there is a long list to pick from! The Colorado Ag magazine listed these top six cover crops: Buckwheat, Legumes, Oats, Rye, Sunn Hemp, and Tillage Radish. The two most popular though are Buckwheat and Legumes; these plants in particular grow fast, suppress weeds, produce beneficial nutrients, and attract beneficial insects!
Though dependent on many factors, grazing your cover crops is one of the most likely ways you will see a positive first-year return on your investment. Farmers are finding they get the best results by using intensive grazing management techniques with low-cost, portable fencing and regularly rotating the livestock. This regular movement of livestock is the most efficient use of cover crop forage and also reduces hoof damage to crop fields. There are also soil health benefits to cover crop grazing! The urine, manure, and saliva from grazing livestock have been found to stimulate soil biology.
If you want to take the first step and learn more about this profitable long-term investment, there are many online resources. And of course, lean on your community and see if any local farmers have any experience with cover crops.
Cover Crop Statistics (from the Census of Agriculture)
Cover crops were planted on 15.4 million acres in 2017, a 50% increase over five years
Eight states more than doubled their cover crop acreage from 2012 to 2017
The number of farms planting cover crops increased 15.2% from 2012 to 2017