Cover Crops Saving Farm Soil, Wildlife and a Warming Planet

Like any good superhero, cover crops look like ordinary plants. And when the conventional crops aren’t growing, cover crops are saving farm soil, wildlife and a warming planet like nothing else can.

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BY SAMI TELLATIN AND ROB MYERS | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 02

In Missouri, if you travel just 15 minutes away from smaller urban areas like Columbia, you’ll find yourself flanked by crops and grazing land, guaranteed. But after the harvest is over, something else starts sprouting in those fields: cover crops.

Cover crops are plants that are grown during a time of the year when we wouldn’t normally grow anything else, like after corn is harvested in the late fall and through the next spring. They’re emerging on the agriculture scene as soil health superheroes destined to save the earth from erosion and degradation. And, they present us with income opportunities. To save soil with cover crops, we need creativity, patience and hard work.

Planting cover crops is like putting your money into a long-term stock portfolio. The returns generally accrue gradually. Environmental benefits can be observed in a relatively short time, but the longer term benefits to yield and profit from cover crop increase over time; there may not always be a profit from cover cropping in the first year but usually is by year two or three. When they’re at peak strength, here’s how they help:

Food and shelter for pollinators, beneficial insects and wildlife

Pollinators require food, protection and habitat in order to survive. Lucky for them, species including red clover, sunn hemp, vetch, canola, crimson clover, forage radish, buckwheat, sunflower and mustards are pollinator-friendly.

These habitat benefits of cover crops will extend beyond pollinator populations and encourage other beneficial insects to take up residence on the farm. Beneficial insects can discourage the presence of harmful pests, thus reducing the pest pressure on a farm and the reliance of the farmer on pesticides.

By keeping the ground covered all year long, farmers can enhance the ability of wildlife to travel from one region to another in search of food and shelter, providing corridors of safety. For instance, quail and pheasants can nest in fields where cover crops are planted.

Keep soil in its place

Rainfall washes bare soil from farmland. That’s bad for farm productivity and bad for clean water. Plus, where fertilizer runoff concentrates in streams, certain species of fish and shellfish can’t survive.

Climate change adaptation and mitigation

n the face of a changing climate, one thing is certain: annual weather events are changing. Precipitation in the Midwest is becoming more intense. Farmers need to adapt to these changes, and develop management practices that will allow them to make use of these intense rainfalls. Cover crops are an excellent opportunity with regards to this, as they can increase water infiltration. Additionally, cover crops have been shown to decrease the yield variability of the following cash crops in the face of extreme weather events. If resilience is desired, cover crops are a great tool to use.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities

The farm is the entrepreneur’s dream. But to reach their potential and scale up, many farmers need the resources to take risks in changing their operations. That means research. Whether by academia, farmers themselves, or private foundations, research on cover crop breeds, appropriate cover crop mixes to solve specific sets of problems, and the best cover crops for certain landscapes, will be critical to furthering farmer adoption of cover crops. Two private partnerships working on this are the Noble Foundation’s Soil Health Institute and the Soil Health Partnership, which is an initiative of the National Corn Grower’s Association, with support from private partners and non-profit organizations.

Nebraska’s own Green Cover Seed ships cover crop seed all over the U.S. Brothers Keith and Brian Berns earned the White House Champions of Change title in 2015.

Consulting businesses to advise farmers on cover crop use and other conservation practices to improve their soil health and resilience.

Larger companies are developing new equipment. The Hagie Cover Crop Interseeder (from Iowa) can seed 500 acres of cover crops in a day.

Agriculture companies that normally sell fertilizers or other farm products are now selling cover crop seed and in some cases broadcasting the seed on farm fields by airplane or tall machines that drive through the fields.

One innovative company has even developed a GPS-steered “Rowbot” that runs automatically between rows of corn to broadcast seeds or fertilizer.

Plus, there’s potential for cover crops to be recognized by emerging environmental markets. Environmental markets are ways to incentivize pollution reduction by placing a trading system on nutrients, like N and C. Carbon cap and trade is an example of this.

Sami Tellatin ails from Springfield, MO. She has a passion for environmental stewardship and is fascinated by agriculture. She currently works for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program and the University of Missouri, promoting soil health practices on farms across the Midwest. Dr. Rob Myers is a regional director for the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, adjunct associate professor of plant sciences at University of Missouri, and has over 60 publications on topics in sustainable agriculture, conservation and crop diversification.


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One Response to “Cover Crops Saving Farm Soil, Wildlife and a Warming Planet

  • There is no only solution but tons of options – like I
    said in the start, there’s no hard and speedy manual which says to the point
    answers to all of your problems. Now in case you pose a certain problem
    into your panel of experts, then you’re certain to receive many distinct comments
    and answers at return. This will turn out to be confusing.

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