Using cover crops is not a short-term investment. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Cover crops are an investment in the long-term soil health and a conscious decision to focus more on stewardship of the land rather than short-term profits.
Knowing your “why” when seeding covers is critical to holding the course, even when it takes a while for the benefits of covers to begin manifesting.
As part of the 2020 Cover Crop Benchmark Study, we asked growers the 3 most important reasons why they seed cover crops. Reducing soil erosion and improving soil biology were the top reasons for 22% of growers, respectively, while increasing soil organic matter was the number one reason for 18% of survey respondents.
Research supports what growers already know about covers. A multi-year study at New Mexico State University (NMSU) showed cover crops increased the biological health of soils. The response of soil organic matter varied depending on which covers were used, with legumes proving to be the most effective in improving soil biology. Oats were most effective at increasing soil organic matter.
“Cover crops can increase biomass input and support soil organic matter accumulation,” says Rajan Ghimire, NMSU cropping systems agronomist. “At the same time, they improve soil structure and conserve soil from both wind and water erosion.”
These results tell us that the majority of growers are using cover crops in order to improve soil health. However, raising cover crops is a complex process, so there are management challenges. So, the 2020 Cover Crop Benchmark Study also asked growers what their biggest management challenges are.
A short seeding window was 17% of growers’ most challenging obstacle to seeding cover crops. A short growing season and time/labor ranked as the second and third management challenges for 16%, respectively, of those who participated in the study.
With time and different aspects of time management on the farm being the biggest issues growers have with using cover crops, it’s important for growers to think about all the many options they for seeding covers.
Choices like interseeding, or planting green, growing covers between wide rows of cash crops, or planting cash crops like wheat that are harvested earlier in the fall allow growers flexibility to be able to raise cash crops and get the soil health benefits from cover crops.
Minnesota grower Tom Cotter has found that planting covers as early as possible helps with good establishment. Maintaining flexibility with the timing of cover crop seeding, chemical applications and cover crop species improve the chances of success with cover crops.
“I can plant a cover crop early into V4 or V6 corn on June 15,” he says. “Early on, I can spread it on top of the ground, but the later it gets, the more I have to plant that seed into the soil.”
Read more coverage about the first Cover Crop Benchmark Study.