What is that green stuff growing in the field when everything else is brown?
If you live in rural America around mid-September, you may be wondering why there is activity during the time of the year when harvest is about to begin. You’re probably wondering what can be done to the crop to improve the yield at this point, and for the most part the answer is nothing. So what in the world is going on?
The answer is cover crops. The definition according to the Midwest Cover Crop Council is that cover crops are plants seeded into agricultural fields, either within or outside of the regular growing season, with the primary purpose of improving or maintaining ecosystem quality. Most years a cover crop is seeded at the end of the growing season, just before harvest to benefit the winter and spring months. So what are the benefits of sowing a cover crop on your land?
Cover crops keep soil in place
There are several benefits from environmental to economic, both long-term and short-term. The most noticeable benefit would the cover crop’s ability to reduce or even eliminate soil erosion. This helps to keep valuable topsoil on the field and prevent it from moving into our water sheds. The topsoil is the most valuable because of its higher organic matter values. This is also where a good portion of the plant rooting takes place. If you lose topsoil, you lose productivity. This topsoil loss also creates environmental impacts as well. The topsoil that is eroded carries nutrients that get in our creeks and rivers. This movement carries nutrients that can cause algae blooms, making the water unusable and even harmful to those who consume it.
Cover crops help help keep nutrients from leaving your fields
Cover crops will scavenge nutrients from the soil environment and hold on to them until they can be released at a time the cash crop can use it. Nitrogen in a major nutrient that many cover crops will scavenge and take up. This nutrient is very expensive to many farmers. But in the case of cover crops, the cover crop will then release it later in the growing season to the crop that is being grown. This can benefit the environment by keeping this costly nutrient in the field. Not only that but it also saves the farmer some money by recycling it.
Biodiversity is the key to a productive field
Another very important benefit is the cover crop’s impact on biodiversity. There are million and millions of microbes in just a tablespoonful of soil. Many experts would say that there are more microbes in a spoonful of soil than there are people who have ever inhabited the earth. That is a bunch! These microbes help to improve the soil, making nutrients available to the plant. They also protect the cash crop, and convert nutrients back to a mineral when the plant isn’t using them. They also help to improve soil structure, water infiltration, and weed suppression. Along with these, there are many more things that we have yet to identify the value of.
The bottom line is, anytime you are growing something in your soils, you are capturing the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. The plant is then depositing that energy below ground. This process in itself will build soil over time and cover crops are a great way to continue this cycle after the cash crop has been harvested.
Are cover crops right for you?
Are cover crops a practice that will bring value to you and your land? I think so, but it does take considerable more management from the farmer renting your land in order to be successful. Are you up for the challenge? What about your tenant?