Farmer Dean Suderman of rural Hillsboro began using cover crops a few years ago after hearing about them for years at conferences about no-till farming, and he is glad he did.
It is difficult to determine the precise return on investment for cover crops, since they aren’t harvested. It’s a little bit easier for farmers who also raise livestock to see direct benefits from grazing.
“That’s because this is hard to measure, you’re improving your soil, but if you’re getting pounds of beef off it, that’s something you can sell,” Suderman said.
The less quantifiable benefits of planting cover crops between cash crops are to improve soil structure, promote healthy soil, draw deep nutrients closer to the surface, and reduce erosion.
Suderman said the buzzword for cover crops is “cocktail mix,” a mix of as many as eight varieties in a single field. Multiple species will have different effects on the soil that wouldn’t be available with a single crop in the field, known as a monoculture.
“Nowhere in nature do you see a monoculture,” he said. “This isn’t really a radical idea.”
In particular, a good mix will have deep-rooted plants like radishes to bring nutrients up closer to the surface of the soil and nitrogen generators to fertilize the field for cash crops.
Planting cover crops also promotes the growth of microbes in the soil, which is good for cash crops, Suderman said.
“Sometimes they refer to that as your ‘underground livestock,’” he said.
An extra benefit of planting cover crops is that they reduce the number of weeds in a field to compete with the next cash crop.
“It’s kind of like mulching your garden,” Suderman said.
Returning to the rarity of monocultures in nature, he said weeds are nature’s way of introducing diversity to monoculture fields.
However, planting cover crops isn’t a strategy for farmers looking for instant gratification, because they don’t provide much bang for the buck in the short term. They do tie in well with no-till farming, though, Suderman said. Cover crops can speed up the benefits of no-till farming, which normally take about five years to reach the same productivity of tilled fields.
On fields that he has recently taken over farming that hadn’t been no-till farmed, he has integrated cover crops to speed up its improvement.
Suderman recommended anyone interested in cover crops read “Managing Cover Crops Profitably,” which is available as a free download on the Internet.