Cover crops and soil health are hot topics now. My Albert Lea Seed House catalog now offers not only the old standards like clovers and rye, but also specialized multi-species "cocktails," daikon type radishes brand named "tillage radish," transplants from drier locales like cowpea, and pollinator- friendly species like phacelia. If you are like me and like to work with cover crops, it's an exciting time.
Soil health research tells us that crop variety is the spice of soil life on farms. This research has led to the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Soil Health Initiative and the creation of assorted programs within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program that help farmers adopt cover cropping practices on their farms. This is a welcome change from the monocrop approach that has come to dominate the agricultural landscape in recent decades. The development of a new generation of cover crop innovators will be needed if cover crops are to become a common practice. A change in mindset from the common plant/spray/harvest rhythm will help too.
I’ve worked with cover crops for about 15 years. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but if I were to share three suggestions gleaned from my successes and failures with cover crops in Le Sueur County's Sharon Township, it would be these:
Give ‘Em a Chance
To realize their potential contribution to your farm, cover crops need time. The tried and true way with alfalfa and clover has been to inter-seed them with a nurse crop like a small grain. Once the small grain is hayed or harvested in summer, the legumes have a chance to catch rain and sunlight and establish what you hoped to see when you bought the seed. Using a no-till system, if you’ve got the implement, also works well, and allows you to try some of the multi-species mixes on the cutting edge of cover cropping practices once the grain is cut.
Trying to hang on to just the corn/soy rotation while integrating cover crops into the growing season will present a challenge. With the exception of winter rye, which almost always works (sometimes too well, see suggestion number three) cover crops may fail. The seed isn’t cheap, and the chance of a cover crop failure grows as the growing season window shrinks. Consider extending your rotation so you can widen your opportunities for getting cover crops established before the growing season ends.
Be Patient, Think Long Term, Expand Your Concept of 'Benefit'
We’ve come to expect results from our inputs now. The benefits of cover crops will take time. Yes, you’ll be able to credit nitrogen fixation from your legumes and reduce inputs, and likely will see less weed pressure following a spring incorporated rye stand. But soil researchers say many benefits may take up to 10 years to develop. Welcome to conservation agriculture!
Nature’s intricate system of diversity, balance and healing is slow, but deep and long lasting. We need this more than ever. We are led to believe we must produce a bumper crop on every acre every year. We spend more money, but corrode the carrying capacity of our soils.
Yes, productivity is very important. And profit is important too. But farming has traditionally embraced a long-range planning horizon. This perspective has an arc that considers generations, and not just the next business quarter profit/loss statements. It embraces communities beyond the farm.
There are benefits beyond the money. Many of us carry family and community stories that go way back. Ever walked through a field of clover in blossom, surrounded by thousands of butterflies, or observed the nests of meadow birds in grain stubble? How do you put a price on that? These are also signs that your farm is generating benefit that extends beyond your field borders and the next growing season. They are things you will notice and share with others.
Roll with the Punches, Keep Your Sense of Humor, Innovate with Help from Others
You’re a farmer, so you’ve had a lot of practice with this. But from my experience, cover crops can be kind of stubborn or unruly. Kind of like livestock. Sometimes they work the way you want, sometimes they give you a headache—not growing when you want them to and in some cases growing too well, competing with cash crops. Many cover crop resources are available to help prevent missteps. And increasingly, USDA is providing farmers with more clarity on the potential impacts of cover cropping practices on crop insurance.
Support is out there. So go ahead, plant something different! See how it can change your farm for the better. You’ll see the difference when you kneel down, and grab a handful of soil. This is the stuff that’s kept you going. It’s got a lot of work to do. Help it do its job. The next generation of farmers will thank you for it.
Le Sueur County, Minn., farmer Tom Nuessmeier is a Land Stewardship Project Policy Program organizer.