The Basics - Benefits of Cover Crops
Cover crops – they work! (When managed properly) Here are the general benefits of cover crops that we should all know:
1. Improving Soil Structure & Water Infiltration
Roots are your best friend when it comes to cover crops. Whether they are fibrous and spreading or a taproot that drives deep to pull up nutrients, varying root structures create channels that facilitate aeration and water infiltration. Beyond the physical abilities of roots, the biological magic that they induce is the real money maker for the soil life. Which leads us to the nutrient cycling that soil biology sparks!
2. Increase Nutrient Cycling
Your soil is the transforming factory that turns nutrients into a form that is able to be taken up by the plant. The biology in the soil is what facilitates this process. The previous mentioned root systems of cover crops give off exudates into the soil that the microscopic biology love to live in. A high population of soil life around the root system creates a zone that feeds the plant versions of the necessary nutrients and minerals in a form they can use.
3. Reducing Erosion
Everyone has seen the rainfall simulator, right? That is a perfect visual to show that it is a fact that something growing (or even dead) on the soil surface reduces erosion. In a rotation, cover crops protect the soil and keep it where you need it. This is especial important for highly erodible soils or areas with shallow top soil. You need to keep every bit that you have! Keep in mind the carbon to nitrogen ratio and rooting type of cover crops when choosing one specifically for erosion control. (We have some erosion control ratings of common cover crops here)
4. Managing Moisture
This benefit can go both ways: holding moisture in or getting rid of it. Need something to retain soil moisture? You need a low growing, ground covering option. Living or terminated cover crops can protect the soil moisture form evaporating away. Need a little less moisture in the spring (don’t we all…)? A living cover crop can uptake that moisture and transpire it away for you. Obviously, the extremes of both of these would not be beneficial, but when used correctly cover crops can be your moisture risk management.
5. Provide Forage
This one is a no brainer for those with livestock (or if you have a neighbor with livestock that might pay you to graze your cover crop *wink wink*). A cover crop can provide many of the benefits listed above and you don’t have to feed as much hay! Selecting the right cover crop for forage is important as well as the seeding rate. Higher rates are often needed to produce the maximum amount of tonnage.
And what do all of these combined have the potential to do? Increase yields and, more importantly, profits! Think about the examples above and consider what cover crops could do for your operation.