What cover crops are, why they are beneficial and how to implement into a large-scale agriculture project.
Whether you’re new to farming or a seasoned gardener, cover crops require keen observation and a little bit of creativity. Nevertheless, with the right mindset and ample knowledge, you can use cover crops to reconstitute your soil. Once you have healthy soil, you can grow healthy plants without the use of chemicals, fertilizers, or herbicides.
In this short guide, you’ll learn what cover crops are, why they are beneficial, and how to implement them on your farm or larger-scale agriculture project.
Purpose of Cover Crops
Cover crops are crops that a farmer plants with the intention to rebalance the soil. For example:
- Rye: Suppresses weeds and loosens the soil.
- Clover: Fixes nitrogen and improves fertility.
- Buckwheat: Prevents erosion.
While cover crops can be harvested, they are primarily used as an interim crop between rotations, seasons, to break a disease cycle, or to open up a new plot of farmable land. As such, cover crops are highly advantageous to farmers who shy away from conventional farming practices, which might include tillage and spraying.
Benefits of Cover Crops
Due to the nature of cover crops completely altering the soil structure, nutrient content, and even physical appearance, cover crops invite a host of diverse life onto the farm. Diversity on a farm is extremely important to the success of any crop. The more creatures crawling around or flying above, the more strengths are distributed to all corners of the field, and fewer weaknesses to leave hanging out to rot.
Certain cover crops are more suited to various conditions than others and that is where more in-depth research is required on behalf of the farmer. But in general, a cover crop planted for the purpose of disease eradication would decrease the number of bad fungi and bacteria in the soil.
Cover crops also bring nutrients to the soil, especially in no-till gardens. A no-till approach means that, when the cover crop is mowed down, the farmer leaves it on the land for it to break down into the soil on its own. No-till is a great practice that helps to preserve the soil life, which is crucial for the development and maintenance of healthy plants and the soil.
Cover crops are also very low maintenance, compared with other crops. They are able to endure harsher climates in order to bring the environment back to equilibrium. This being said, cover crops must be killed before they go to seed. If they go to seed, you will have a more difficult time preparing the field for your harvestable crops.
Implementing Cover Crops
- Take a Soil Sample
If you’ve never implemented a cover crop into your crop rotation, the best place to start is by taking a soil sample. You’ll want to send it to an agronomist who can give you information beyond your nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium values. While these are important elements to know, they don’t paint the entire picture.
- Choose Your Cover Crop(s)
Once you have your soil sample, you can pick the cover crops that will work for your nutrient deficiencies or abundances. You can also mix more than one cover crop in one field, for example, daikon radish and buckwheat to aerate the soil and prevent erosion simultaneously.
- Know Your Seasons
Now that you have an idea as to your starting point and your desired endpoint, you need to be aware of the season. Summer and winter cover crops are distinguished by their ability to handle the frost. If you live in a milder climate, this will be less of a concern for you.
- Remember Observe Your Crops
You will want to check up on your cover crop periodically, especially to mow, or even water in times of drought. It’s also a good idea to get regular visuals on how the field is changing. Perhaps some weeds are finally disappearing and other insects are beginning to pop up. Take notes of your observations.
- Plan for Your Cover Crop Recovery
Once you’ve decided on your cover crop(s), you should think about a kill date and a plan for after the cover crop has done its job. If you decide to leave your mowed cover crop in the field as green manure, your job is essentially complete until you are ready to prep the field for your harvestable crops. If not, then you’ll need to create a plan to pick up or till the cover crop.
Start Your Cover Crops
If you’re ready to reconstitute the earth, you’ll need to buy some cover crop seeds, which can be found at Granite Seed. Here you can find cover crops that are best suited for your climate or region and even more information on how to get started.