Back to the Future: Cover Crops Make a Comeback
By Bruce Knight
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Did Granddad know best? Maybe—at least when it comes to the value of cover crops, which today are increasingly popular among conservation-minded producers. Planting a cover crop, whether it blankets all the crop acreage or strategic sections of the operation, can provide multiple benefits. The idea is simple—maximize the number of days each year that something green is growing on your land, which will improve the soil health from fertility to organic matter, water-holding capacity and microbial activity.
One 2005 study estimated that about 18 percent of farmers had used cover crops, including 11 percent who had planted them during the previous five years. As more farmers re-examine this approach our grandparents used, I believe they will find opportunities to make cover crops pay, and we’ll see expanding use of this tried and true strategy for protecting the land and boosting yields.
The difference in the agricultural diversity that Granddad practiced and the use of cover crops in the 21st Century is technology, permitting farmers to determine their return on investment and target cover crops to areas where they can provide the greatest benefit. For example, Cornell University has developed a cover crop tool to help farmers identify the best cover crops to produce the benefits they are looking for along with the best time to plant them. Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), university agriculture departments, Cooperative Extension offices and other farmers are good sources of information on appropriate cover crops.
Tools like Cornell’s can help operators determine whether cover crops make sense for their farm or ranch, but the decision involves more than simply crunching the numbers to calculate a return on investment. Cover crops improve soil health and can reduce the need for fertilizer, provide feed and forage for livestock and help producers facing regulatory pressures. They can also minimize weeds for farmers using no-till systems. And, they can limit erosion, reduce nutrient runoff, decrease soil compaction, cut pest populations and improve water quality.
As the next farm bill winds its way through the legislative process, we need to ensure that we have a long-term policy that supports using cover crops as part of a balanced approach to crop rotation and protecting the environment. Already, organic farms are relying on cover crops for nitrogen fixation. However, this is not a practice just for that community. In the future, I believe we’ll see more and more mainstream and production farming operations turning to cover crops to improve soil health, reduce erosion, boost organic matter and produce feed and forage for livestock.
NRCS programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program offer guidance and assistance in managing for improved soil health and establishing cover crops. Farmers should explore these options at their local office. In addition, state and local organizations are also beginning to recognize the value of improved soil health from the use of cover crops—and providing funding to encourage planting them. For example, Maryland farmers can receive up to $100 per acre for planting traditional cover crops and $25 per acre for harvestable cover crops.
Planting cover crops to protect the land and improve the soil is an old idea whose time has come—again. As we look forward, we can look back to re-employ an old approach that makes sense for profits today and land improvements for tomorrow.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.
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