With our wheat off, it’s time that we turn our attention to the next plant population to inhabit our fields, but I’m not talking about next season’s crop quite yet. I’m talking about cover crops, which provide a bridge from one growing season to the next and, when used strategically, can provide a bridge from where you are now to increased profit and sustainability.
As with most well laid plans, we need to start at the end. What cover crop option is best for you depends entirely on your goals. Cover crops also always must be entered into with an exit plan already in place so that you may move seamlessly into next season. Their management and end game are also dependent upon your ultimate goals:
If your goal is to get fat cattle:
Going for over $2 per pound, cattle is at an all-time high. With quality feed and a solid grazing management plan, you can expect a 2 pound gain per day per animal. That’s simple math: a $4 gain per day per animal with proper feeding and care.
Cover crops can not only provide the quality feed that such growth requires but can also address one of the main problems that grazing cattle creates: compaction. What cover crop or cover crop blend is best for your cattle operation depends on how many pounds of gain you’re aiming for and how you manage compaction issues. Turnips and radishes will not only help alleviate compaction in your fields, but come with the added benefit of increasing the water retention capabilities of your soil.
If your goal is to gain organic matter in your soil:
By not harvesting or baling a cover crop, you leave the matter in your field for microbes to feed on. Such microbial action creates organic matter in your soil, which, as you know, is excellent for your plants. (Promoting microbial action was the reason we all started no-till in the first place.)
Knowing how you plan to kill the cover crop off is an important detail going in, as is how you plan to manage the residue it will add to your field. When these two issues are properly planned for, many options for cover crops can provide great benefits to your soil. The perfect fit may depend on what other goals you have, such as…
If your goal is to address erosion:
A few facts for you about topsoil: it takes 20 years to create an inch of topsoil; one inch of topsoil is worth $100 per acre; and the loss of topsoil costs $45 billion in lost revenue and environmental costs annually.
Unfortunately, in our part of the world, erosion is an issue. Many of our fields exist on 7-10% slopes when only a 3% slope is necessary for water movement. We’ve addressed this in part with broad based terraces, though even this solution leaves us yet with vulnerabilities. Integrating cover crops into your water management plan can fill in those final cracks.
The main problem that terraces create is that their construction exposes and leaves bare the B horizon, which is nutrient poor and easily eroded. By planting a cover crop that establishes quickly, like annual rye grass or triticale, on a new terrace, you protect the newly exposed dirt from washing away in a storm.
Your options for cover crops are many, and their suitability to blending means that you can address multiple goals at once. The goals that I’ve covered here are just three of the most common ones that cover crops address so well, but there are many more. If you have a goal in mind, there is a cover crop to match it. They are a relatively inexpensive, sustainable, and entirely elegant solution to many problems. They are a way to cultivate your success even between growing seasons.