Benefits Cover Crops Could Bring to Your Field

March 12, 2018

In recent years, many farmers have turned to cover crops for a variety of reasons. While the specific plant used varies, cover crops are planted in fields after harvest with the goals of improving field health and managing erosion. The practice is becoming increasingly common with farmers looking for soil health benefits, reduced runoff, or even the recently announced insurance savings. Still, many are hesitant — are the benefits worth the work of planting an entirely different crop? If you're one of those still on the fence, we broke down the positives of cover cropping so you can make an informed decision.

Improving Soil Health and Structure

One of the primary advantages to planting a cover crop is the increased soil health that additional organic material brings to the field. The plants improve the soil and add nutrients, and when slashed or allowed do die back, form a natural compost. The cover crop will also attract a variety of insects to the field, which can help prevent the populations of harmful pests from growing. Additionally, the increase in organic matter will foster the presence of microbes that help eliminate fungal and bacterial infections.

Cover crops with a long taproot or wide root system (such as radishes or Ryegrass) also improve the soil structure. The roots create tunnels that aid in the aeration of the soil, as well as transportation passages for insects and microorganisms. The improved soil structure also helps the field withstand the force of heavy farm equipment and reduces subsurface compaction.

Preventing Runoff

A benefit to both the field and surrounding bodies of water, the above- and below-surface presence of cover crops can be effective in preventing runoff. Without direct exposure to the wind and harsh rainfall, erosion is less likely. The cover crops also help stabilize the soil by binding it together and protecting fertile topsoil from eroding.

Storing Nutrients

Planting cover crops can bring higher nutrient levels to the soil, as well as making better use of fertilizer treatments. Legumes in particular are known for their nitrogen-fixing quality, in which they become a habitat for bacteria that convert nitrogen into ammonia. These plants increase the nitrogen levels in the ground while growing, and release it back into the soil when they die, making the nutrients available for use by your cash crop. The cover crop can also store nutrients from manure and fertilizer that is applied to the field, allowing the next year's crops to use what may have otherwise been lost over time.

Reducing the Need for Irrigation

As mentioned before, the roots of cover crops create passages in the soil, which can greatly improve the moisture infiltration and percolation. Deep roots are also able to bring up moisture from lower down in the soil, and the additional organic matter increases the water holding capacity. This higher level of retention enhances traction and translates to fewer problems planting in the spring, as farmers with cover crops are able to plant in conditions (whether too wet or too dry) that would be a risk for machinery in other fields.

Stamping out Weeds

Some cover crops are referred to as "living mulches" due to their ability to suppress weeds. The leaves of the plant prevent weeds from getting the sunlight needed to survive, and its roots deprive them of needed nutrients. Upon dying or being slashed back, the cover crop works as a more traditional mulch, covering weeds and inhibiting their growth.