What is Cover Cropping & How Does it Work?
Cover cropping is the practice of growing crops between main crops in cycle to improve soil health and fertility. A cover crop is any crop grown to cover the soil and may be incorporated into the soil later for enrichment. Cover crops are planted in the fall or spring and left to grow until they are killed in the late spring or early summer. Cover crops can help protect soil from erosion, increase organic matter, reduce weed pressure, improve soil structure and water infiltration, and provide habitat for beneficial insects.
Additionally, cover cropping can be used to fix nitrogen in soils that are deficient in this nutrient. By understanding how cover cropping works and its benefits for soil health, farmers can use this technique to improve their yields while reducing their environmental impact.
SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) states that cover crops should be viewed as a long-term investment in improved soil health and farm management.
In an article from 2015, they state, “A cover crop is a plant that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, increase biodiversity, and bring a host of other benefits to your farm. Cover crops have also been shown to increase crop yields, break through a plow pan, add organic matter to the soil, improve crop diversity on farms and attract pollinators.”
Benefits of Cover Cropping & Tips on How to Implement It
Cover cropping is an agricultural practice that involves planting crops to cover the soil when it’s not being used for a primary crop. This technique has been used by farmers for centuries, and its benefits are numerous.
As mentioned above, there are a variety of benefits to utilizing cover crops in your crop rotation plan. All of the cover crops share most of the benefits however, you will want to hone in on your specific needs or goals in order to determine the best choice for your farm or garden, including timing as well.
What are the Different Types of Cover Crops Available and Which Are Best Suited for Your Needs?
Cover crops are an essential part of any farming operation. There are many different types of cover crops available, each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Legume cover crops such as clover or alfalfa fix nitrogen in the soil, while annual ryegrass provides quick ground cover and winter wheat is well-suited to cold climates. Depending on your needs, there is sure to be a type of cover crop that will work best for you.
Legume cover crops such as red clover, crimson clover, vetch, peas, and beans can fix a lot of nitrogen for subsequent crops. Legumes also help prevent erosion, support beneficial insects and pollinators, and can increase the amount of organic matter by turning them back into the soil after their cycle is complete.
Non-legume cover crops like (rye, wheat, barley, oats, forage grasses (annual ryegrass), and broadleaf species like buckwheat, mustards, and brassicas, including the forage radish are helpful for scavenging nutrients, providing erosion control, suppressing weeds and producing large amounts of residue that add organic matter.
*The forage radish is something that I plant as a cover crop in areas where I have large amounts of clay. They make giant hollows in the hard ground, adding organic matter when they decompose and also making channels for water to flow through.
Cover crop mixtures can be the best of both worlds by combining the benefits of grasses and legumes, or using the different growth characteristics of several species to fit your needs. Compared to a single cover crop, cocktails usually produce more overall biomass and nitrogen, tolerate adverse conditions, increase winter survival, provide ground cover, improve weed control, attract a wider range of beneficial insects and pollinators, and provide more options for use as forage.
Cover Cropping in Organic Gardening
As I mentioned in my article on Organic Gardening, there are many non-chemical ways to enhance your soil and achieve your goals. No-till farming or other conservation agriculture systems are good opportunities to plant cover crops. The cover crop mulch can increase water infiltration and also improve moisture availability by preventing evaporation. Cover crop residue helps control weeds, which is especially important in organic no-till agriculture.
Plant cover crops in organic farming to provide nitrogen, manage weeds, and improve soil health. In organic no-till farming, you can kill the cover crop and leave the mulch on the soil surface to conserve water or incorporate the cover crop into the soil as a green manure before planting your main crop.
A Natural Ecosystem
One of the best things that you can do for your gardening efforts is to create an ecosystem that works the way it is meant to in nature. Cover cropping can help you to achieve that goal. Cover crops enhance biodiversity on the farm and contribute to a healthier ecosystem. Flowering cover crops can provide food and habitat for important pollinators and beneficial insects as well as supporting birds and other wildlife.
Cover crops protect water quality by curbing soil erosion and reducing nitrogen losses. By stimulating biological activity in the soil, cover crops planted on a large scale can sequester huge amounts of atmospheric carbon. Taking part in the practice of cover cropping allows you to put the ecosystem back together that is constantly being taken apart by chemicals and other unnatural practices.
Cover Cropping in Pest Control
Cover crops can reduce infestations by insects, diseases, nematodes, and weeds. Cover crops that attract and retain beneficial insects, when allowed to flower, include buckwheat, clovers (crimson, red, white, sweet), and brassicas. Cover crop mulches suppress weeds and reduce the splashing of soil-borne pathogens onto leaves, while some, such as sudangrass and mustards, reduce populations of verticillium wilt and other soil pathogens.
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