Planting cover crops instead of fallowing fields may boost soil health, but farmers shouldn’t expect their efforts to work immediately. Cover crops also increase costs.

That was the takeaway from a workshop presented by the Southwestern Colorado Research Center and attended by more than 60 farmers and ranchers Monday in Dove Creek at the Public Service Center.

Blaine Nebeker, who farms in San Juan County, Utah, said cover crops offer him benefits largely because he has switched to organic farming – benefiting from the higher prices he can get for organics, principally his winter wheat. But organic farming narrows the fertilizers he can use.

“Organic production has made it possible for us to keep farming,” he said.

Nebeker was one of several farmers who presented summaries of their results based on their participation in a study of cover crops led by the SWCRC.

Cover crops are especially valuable as nitrogen fixers for Nebeker because of his limited options for fertilizers.

The other point he brought home is importance of luck: Nature must cooperate to get full benefits of cover crops.

“It’s been tough” he said. “The moisture has not cooperated.”

In 2019, he said, the failure of the monsoons limited the growth – and the soil benefits – he received from his cover crops.

Still, Nebeker believes persistent efforts growing cover crops will provide benefits, but it takes time, and only limited soil health benefits were seen after only a few years of using cover crops.

“Cover crops will be beneficial even if keeps you from making one pass (on the fields to keep weeds down). The weed suppression alone would save you some money,” he said.

Steve Berry, who farms near Eastland, Utah, also reported similar, subtle benefits based on his use of cover crops.

“The water stayed in the fields, and that’s a good thing,” Berry said of his use of cover crops. “Before, if the ground just smelled the rain it would create a funnel.”

Berry added he could not say that his yields improved after using cover crops compared with his neighbors, but he noted more healthful soil did provide benefits.

“I do know if I planted seeds, they came up,” he said.

Dave Fisher, who farms from Cahone to the Utah line, said he participated in the study to examine the benefits of cover crops – principally to introduce nitrogen into the soil and to cut down on erosion.

He noted the economics of using cover crops would improve by combining its use with grazing. However, he said the area he planted had not been grazed in 20 years and lacked the fencing to make grazing practical.

The delicate economic balance of using cover crops means the costs to get proper fencing to incorporate with cover crops made that option economically unfeasible during the study period.

In a question-and-answer session, Nebeker noted cover crops require management and attention like any other crop.

“A cover crop can turn into a weed if you’re not careful,” he said.