Growing cover crops is not a one-size-fits-all practice. However, the practice does offer numerous benefits to all different types of growers. Here is some food for thought on how cover crops best fit for your operation, according to Keith Berns with Green Cover Seed:
1.) I already have too much topsoil! Not planting covers can leave your topsoil exposed and vulnerable to blowing away in the harsh winter winds or washing away with late fall/winter rain—thanks, erosion! You might be missing that topsoil come next spring.
2.) You like the challenge of fighting resistant weeds. Growers already have a massive to-do list anyway, so why add one more thing? Planting covers will help by out-competing weeds to help reduce weed growth in general, including resistant weeds. Fewer weeds in your fields means less money spent on herbicide and more dollars in your pocket.
3.) Purple is my favorite color, so I like seeing crops that suffer from fallow syndrome. With no covers in a field, the soil will be lacking the fungi vesicular arbuscular mycorrihizae (VAM), resulting in fallow syndrome, according to information from the University of Missouri Integrated Pest & Crop Management program. VAM act like an extension of plant roots and help crops absorb nutrients like phosphorus (P) and zinc, so when crops do come up, they are purple in color due to lack of P.
4.) I’m squeamish—I don’t like fungi and earthworms, so why would I want them in my soil? See #3 about the need for fungi in the soil. Planting covers will encourage earthworms to stay in the soil over the winter and continue creating channels in the soil for water, breaking up compaction and decomposing organic matter. Earthworms castings are valuable fertilizer in the soil, according to the University of Illinois Extension.
5.) I like tillage equipment and I like spending money on fuel and big tractors to pull my tillage equipment through my fields each spring. Covers can actually help with compaction issues, negating the need for deep tillage—and saving you money on that big equipment and the fuel to use them.
While these reasons may be a little tongue in cheek, there is much truth behind them. Covers, especially winter rye and brassicas like radish or turnip can help with addressing many of the issues listed above.
Again, covers are not a silver bullet, and will not solve all your soil health challenges, but they can do a lot to positively impact your soil health. It’s not too late to plant covers for this fall.