What a long, strange trip it has been! I have been using cover crops for 8 years now in Central Illinois and it has been a very fun ride.
My interest in covers stemmed from wanting to improve my soil engine, or soil biology, and to unlock the many years’ worth of nutrients that I have applied to our soils. With my background and passion for biology, I was convinced that there had to be a better way to farm my acres, and I wanted to unlock my soil’s potential.
There are unlimited “recipes” of cover crops you can try, but the most popular and easiest to use is cereal rye in front of soybeans. Cereal rye has a wide window of application, late into the year. It is also very easy to terminate in the spring. With a large root mass, it will sequester large amounts of nutrients and release them throughout the growing season, benefiting the soybeans as it seems that soybeans want their fertility late in the growing season.
Stay tuned over the next few months as I chronicle successes and failures that have occurred in my operation.
Here are a few benefits and best practices I have learned about cover crops:
- You CAN see results in Year 1. Increased water infiltration, reduced compaction, better soil structure, and drier and warmer spring soils are real, in the first year. The best way to raise your yields is to bring the lower yielding areas up. If you typically have ponding in your field, covers can help.
- The real benefits come in subsequent years. There is a tremendous amount of nutrients in the soil but most of them are tied up in the soil colloid. How do we access these nutrients? Microbes and fungi are the key to unlocking these nutrients! And living roots in the soil colonize these helpful microbes and fungi and give them a home. The more roots in the soil for longer periods of time, the more soil life works for you.
- Organic matter is built underground. Less than 1% of the dry matter on top of the ground is converted into organic matter. Most of the action of building organic matter (which is definitely possible, up to 0.1% per year), occurs underground. The more diverse mix of roots, the more organic matter will be produced. Cover crop mixes are phenomenal for helping raise OM.
- Radishes are like Red Bull to Earthworms. If you can put radishes in your mix, you WILL see earthworm populations increase. Earthworms are an excellent indicator of soil health and provide many benefits, such as exudates (waste), water infiltration and biological tillage. I do not have cows or hogs, but I am a livestock farmer…. Earthworms.
- Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. You may not have a cover crop stand that looks like a golf course, wheat field, or a cash crop. Many growers will see a less than perfect stand and consider it a failure. It is not. Something growing in the field is better than nothing growing in the field. Whatever is growing in the field is capturing sunlight, converting it into carbon, and feeding the microbial life. We should strive for great stands in our cover crops, but don’t let a spotty stand deter you from continuing to try them again.
- Try them with no out-of-pocket money. Talk to your NRCS office about trying cover crops on a small part of your farm in order to get familiar/comfortable with them. There are short term programs that can help get you started.
- There is help out there. Social media has allowed an awesome amount of sharing and learning to take place much faster than ever before! Search Twitter for #covercrops and follow those people that are commenting. You will get the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can also get bleeding edge practices that are being tried, and you will find something that you can use. On Facebook, ‘Everything cover crops’ and ‘cover crop innovators’ are great groups to join for being able to ask questions, post pictures, and get feedback for your operation.
The best time to experiment with cover crops is last year. The next best time is this year. Try something on a small number of acres and see for yourself. I promise, it will become a healthy addiction! Shift your mindset, and big things will happen!