Sustainable Agriculture: 5 Reasons to Plant Cover Crops

Oct 02, 2019

Take a minute to think about what it would be like to have ideal soil – what it would be like to pass the farm down to your children knowing the soil is better than when you started. Is that even possible?

With a little bit of change, yes. It is possible for you to improve your soil health. You can fight erosion and reduce input costs while watching your crops grow better. You can farm sustainably.

While implementing sustainable practices may be challenging, we can’t just keep doing it “the way it’s always been done.” To continue farming – to continue providing food, fiber and fuel for the world – we need to start changing our farming practices, so we can leave the world better for the generations after us. One of the ways we can do this is by planting cover crops. Let’s take a look at five reasons you should include cover cropping in your farming operation.

1. Reduce erosion and soil disturbance

When you plant cover crops, you reduce exposure of top soil to the elements of nature, and in West Texas, protection from wind is especially important. With roots in the soil and ground cover provided by the crop, you will see less erosion – which also means more remaining top soil.

2. Opportunity for grazing and wildlife attraction

Many grass and cereal crops are known for providing great cover, being palatable and attractive to wildlife. These cover crops can also be used to graze livestock. You could even rent your field out to ranchers whose livestock could utilize your cover crops, which provides you with another source of income and improves your soil health.

3. Increase soil organic matter, beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Whether the cover crop is winter killed or you spray it in the spring before planting, the plant matter left over will eventually become part of the soil, which will increase the soil organic matter. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service also explains that cover crops help provide active living roots in the soil, which then form relationships with beneficial fungi. These fungi end up feeding the roots without consuming the existing organic matter in the soil. This process allows the opportunity for organic matter to increase more quickly. By increasing organic matter, you increase your soil health through improved nutrient availability and soil moisture retention.

4. Improve moisture infiltration and soil structure

Another benefit of planting cover crops is the improvement in soil moisture and structure. Brassica crops are especially helpful in this because many of them have deep taproots, which help break up hardpans. According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, the roots from cover crops help improve soil structure and open channels for water. The cover provided also helps improve infiltration by decreasing water runoff.

5. Improve nutrient availability

The last reason we’ll look at is the improvement in nutrient availability. It is well-known in the agriculture industry that legumes are nitrogen-fixers. By planting leguminous crops in your cover crop mix, you will likely see an increase in available nitrogen. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education says that if managed correctly, cover crops decrease your need for fertilizers.

The Next Step

            By growing cover crops on your farm, you can begin to see these benefits in your own soil. Each field is unique, so when deciding what to use for your cover crop, it is important to keep your goal in mind. Do you want to improve moisture infiltration? Do you want to decrease soil erosion on your farm? Or is your main goal to improve the nutrient content in your soil?

      By knowing what your goal is, you can customize a blend to fit your needs. A mixture of several types of crops is generally encouraged to receive all the different benefits cover crops provide.  Cover crops provide long-term improvement in soil and decreased need of inputs by developing healthier soil.

 While it may be easier to keep doing what we’re doing, it is important for us to be open to trying new practices and changing the way we do things. It can be intimidating and hard to implement new practices, but if you start small – if you start by planting cover crops on just one field – it will get easier with every step you take toward sustainable farming.

For more information, visit Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s page about cover crops to find fact sheets and infographics.

Do you want to start seeing the benefits of cover crops in your soil? Contact your closest Eco-Drip location, or call Leslie Gilles at (806) 781-1144 to find out more about how cover crops can benefit your farm and create a custom blend specifically for your field.