Some groups have decided to endorse an idealized (and often unrealistic) version of farming, claiming that conventional American farmers are not sustainable.
True sustainability in agriculture is a puzzle with hundreds of pieces. But it is a puzzle that farmers across the country are diligently working at every day!
Last Sunday, I briefly discussed the use of “no till” or limited tillage programs, which can be read here.
This week, I will discuss our use of cover crops.
Cover Crop: A crop grown for enrichment or protection of the soil.
Cover crops are not cash crops (we do not plant them to harvest for income like corn and soybeans). The primary purpose of the cover crops is to make sure the soils are never uncovered; essentially we are copying the way God designed things to work.
In nature, you never see an empty field! But instead of allowing weeds to cover our farms, we are making calculated decisions about what plants will bring the most benefit in the “off season”.
Matt’s preferred mixture of cover crops is a combination of alfalfa, crimson clover, turnips, tillage radishes and cereal rye. We most often use the drill to plant cover crops, but other methods such as broadcasting and even aerial application are used as well.
How are they used?
Years ago, it was common for fields to be left empty (and often plowed) in between the fall harvest and spring planting. New research is telling us this is not the ideal way to farm and we are looking to cover crops for better sustainability and overall soil health.
This year we are actually planting cover crops RIGHT NOW, even though harvest as not yet started. Several of our fields went without getting planted this year because of the wet spring and early summer we had. We are planting cover crops on them now because it’s finely dry enough and we have a break in between hay season and harvest.
Although this is a lifestyle we love, farmers still have to be profitable (being profitable is a huge factor in being sustainable). There is a cost associated with cover crops – we have seed cost, equipment cost and labor cost. However, on our farm the benefits of these plantings far outweigh the cost! I have listed some of benefits below!
1. Fall/winter grazing: Cover crops allow us to graze additional areas and have fresh forages for our cattle and sheep later into the year than just what our pastures provide. Of course the livestock leave back nutrients wherever they graze as well.
2. Reduce soil compaction: If the soil is packed down to hard, water, oxygen and even the roots of plants may not be able to penetrate through. Our no till practices already help to reduce soil compaction because we are making fewer trips across the field plus avoiding plow pans. Cover crops, especially those with deep tap roots like tillage radishes, reach far down into the soil sending roots out in every direction to break up the compaction.
3. Build organic matter (OM): OM is a key component to healthy soil. When we harvest our cash crops, we remove nutrients and organic matter from our farms. Cover crops, which are left to decompose above the soil and within the soil, add back many of the key components to a healthy farm!
4. Minimize weed growth: God did not intend for fields to remain empty and you can witness this anytime a field is left by a farmer that way! Planting cover crops, as opposed to letting weeds grow up, allows us to select plants that are beneficial to our specific farms, have the ability to meet specific needs, and can more easily be controlled and terminated than weeds.
5. Add and hold nutrients: Some cover crops fix or add nutrients such as nitrogen. Some cover crops latch onto nutrients already in the soil, and hold them in place, allowing the cash crops to better access the nutrients that were already there.
6. Minimize erosion: Soil is often loss due to wind and water erosion. If the soil stays covered, much less soil is lost. For years it seemed the only direction to go with total tons of soil on a crop farm was down. With the use of cover crops we can not only stop erosion, we can actually BUILD our total soil volume!!
7. Increase water holding ability: The increased OM and decreased compation in our soils leads to a better ability to hold water for plants within our soils. This is important for farmers in Missouri and other areas subject to high heat and low rain fall later in growing seasons.
This is a short list of the many ways cover crops add to the sustainability of our farm. These plants have made testable differences in our farms – adding to organic matter and decreasing our chemical and fertilizer costs! For more information on no till practices and cover crops, please visit No Till Farmer!
Come back next Sunday for another highlight of #SustainabilitySundays!