Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?

In the spring, you might see some interesting looking plants popping up over last season’s crop remnants. What may seem like early growing weeds could actually be a way for farmers to promote soil and water health and reduce erosion in a system called cover cropping.

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops, also called “green manure”, are short-seasoned plants that grow quickly after the ground thaws in the spring . Farmers will plant these crops in the fall after harvest to help give the land extra cover when their main crop, generally corn or soybeans in Iowa, is not established in the late fall and early spring months.

cover

What do cover crops do?

Though there are many types of plants used in cover cropping systems, they all serve some of the same purposes. They help hold the soil together to reduce erosion, they serve as a guard against runoff (promoting water quality downstream), suppress weed growth, use different nutrients than cash crops, and can help build healthier soils by increasing organic matter and reducing compaction.

Why do farmers plant cover crops?

Some of the biggest benefits of cover cropping are nutrient recycling and soil and water health. If a farmer plants cover crops, their soil health will increase, and their main crop can see a yield boost. Farmers also realize that taking care of their soil is important, because without it, none of their crops could grow.

How do farmers plant cover crops?

There are a variety of ways farmers can establish their cover crops. Many farmers will drill the seeds into the ground to avoid extra tillage of the soil, which can cause increased erosion. Other farmers will have small airplanes or helicopters do aerial seedings. Other farmers may plant using a broadcast system that scatters the seed, or precision planting with a corn or soybean planter.

aerial

What kinds of plants are used as cover crops?

In Iowa, cereal rye is a commonly used cover crop. However, other small grains such as oats or triticale are also used, and some legumes such as crimson clover and hairy vetch  are used. Some farmers may even plant turnips or radishes! Producers can mix and match different kinds of plants according to their strengths and weaknesses to help them meet many goals with their cover crop rotation.

What do farmers do with cover crops?

Cover crops are interesting in that their main purpose is just to grow. Though some farmers may use them to graze cattle or to get added value from the plant, others may terminate them by mowing over them or by using herbicides.

All in all, this system of planting a short-season crop to break up regular cycles and to provide extra benefits to the environment is becoming more and more popular in the state. Farmers have found many different ways to make the idea work in their fields and operations, and will likely continue to find innovative and interesting ways to meet the same goals. What do you think will come next in cover cropping?

-Chrissy

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