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Harvest more sunshine year round: plant cover crops for healthier soils

Fri, Jan 18th, 2013
Posted in All Agriculture

Donna Rasmussen, Administrator

Cover crops are grasses, legumes, forbs, or other plants established to control soil erosion, build organic matter, capture nutrients and carbon, reduce compaction, break weed and disease cycles, and provide supplemental forage. Cover crops play a significant role in keeping soil healthy. One of the most interesting things about soil health is the role of organisms living in the soil that are essential for soil to perform its functions The organisms that live in the soil rely on growing roots to provide them with food. In return, they help the plants take up water and nutrients. Some of these organisms are fungi that produce glomalin, or the glue that holds soil together and gives it structure. When plant root growth stops, this process slows down or stops.

Planting a cover crop extends the growing season and keeps this process going. In effect, sunshine is being harvested to keep the soil healthy. Tillage also interrupts the production of glomalin, which explains why tilled soils have less structure than untilled soils leaving the soil doubly susceptible to erosion. Not only does tillage expose the bare soil to the energy of the raindrop but it has lost its structure and resiliency reducing its ability to resist erosion.

The most vulnerable time for soil erosion is after a crop is harvested until a canopy can form the following growing season. With most of the cropping systems in this region, this vulnerability is most pronounced in the fall until early summer, almost half the year, which is also the time when heavy rainfall is most likely. Look at a field harvested for corn silage, canning crops or soybeans and note the amount of bare soil that is visible. Having a living cover on the ground during this time can significantly reduce the risk of erosion plus provide the benefits mentioned above.

Winter rye has been a popular choice for a cover crop because of its ability to grow even under very cool conditions. It germinates and grows quickly with adequate moisture and good soil contact. The growth above ground may not look like much in the fall because most of the energy of the plant is going into producing roots. However, in the spring, it is easy to spot those fields with winter rye because they are a brilliant green when everything else is still brown. Winter rye seeded in the fall can be grazed the following spring which allows more time for forage in permanent pastures to become better established. Rye that is allowed to grow in the spring can also be harvested for forage. In effect, cover crops “harvest more sunshine” and increase the number of months that the land is productive.

New combinations of cover crops are incorporating things such as tillage radishes and turnips to break up soil compaction, or legumes to fixate nitrogen for later crops. Some producers prefer to use oats, which winter kills, eliminating the need for mechanical or chemical control in the spring. Alternative methods for seeding are also being tried, such as the use of a highboy, airplane, or helicopter to seed into a standing crop, or incorporating the seed into fall fertilizer applications to eliminate an extra trip across the field.

There are financial incentives for planting cover crops offered through a variety of programs. Anyone who is interested in planting cover crops should contact the SWCD office at (507)765-3878, ext. 3.

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