A WInter Coat for the Farm: The Benefits of Cover Crops

This weekend I visited Seattle during the city’s coldest days yet this year. Accustomed to Los Angeles weather, I was unprepared without a hat or even sleeves on my trendy cape; it was a chilly welcome to the city. Even though I knew better from my east coast upbringing, I had overlooked the importance of protecting myself against the cold.

Our land also needs protection from the cold and the elements. Surprisingly, a lot of soil is left bare in the winter, depleting its health and life. Over time, this has made it more difficult for farms to withstand weather-related damages to crops.

Farmers too can protect the soil by putting on a better coat, so to say, by cover cropping. Cover crops, as the name suggests, provide cover to fields that would otherwise be left bare much of the year, exposed to costly erosion and nutrient losses. Cover crops are grown with the primary purpose of improving soil health during the off-season, rather than for their cash value. Farmers can choose from nearly 50 different species of legume, brassica, grass, and broadleaf crops to make a mix of cover crops that best fit their operation. Farmers typically try a variety of seed mixes to start off with before figuring out what works best for their needs, while also sometimes mixing it up if needs change.

Watch Gabe Brown, NRDC’s 2012 Growing Green Awards winner, show off and explain cover crops on his farm:

Cover crops deliver specific benefits that can be hard to achieve manually or chemically. Benefits are particular to each farm because of the variability between soil type, climate, past management, and annual weather patterns. According to a Cover Crop Survey Analysis by North Central SARE, respondents listed a variety of benefits they experienced from cover crops, including:
Reduced Soil Erosion

By growing deep roots, cover crops hold the soil and nutrients within it in place as harsh winter winds and snows blow across the field. This has great benefits since topsoil, the upper, outermost layer of soil, is an incredibly valuable resource. The USDA


Reduced Soil Compaction

The deep root systems of some cover crops also create tunnels in the ground, reducing soil compaction. They put a network of pores in the soil, which helps subsequent commodity crops to have good rooting depth – allowing roots greater access to water and nutrients. Cover cropping reduces the need to mechanically break up compaction through “tillage,” which can cost $30 to $35 per acre. No-till farming  also provides many other benefits, which my colleague Claire wrote about last week.


Reduced Fertilizer Requirements

Certain cover crops, such as legumes, are planted specifically forsupplying nitrogen, a common agricultural fertilizer, thereby helping lower input costs and improve efficiency. Planting certain crops can provide 40 lbs. of nitrogen per acre—that’s a $22/acre savings to the farmer! Furthermore, by taking up residual nitrate in the soil, cover crops also provide the indirect benefit of decreased nitrate leaching (which can cause Dead Zones) into groundwater and as surface runoff, thereby improving water quality. 

Reduced Livestock Feed Costs

In areas that have ranching, cover crops can also provide cattle with yearlong grazing as opposed to being fed in a dry-lot all winter. The economic return fromreduced hay feeding and increased grazing is huge.One farmer noted that with cover cropping, his new yearly feed cost per cow has dramatically decreased to $100-$150 per head, compared to an Illinois average of almost $350 per head. Instead of being fed low protein hay, cover crops are also beneficial to his cows, and himself, by producing higher quality beef.

To recap, depending on the operation, it’s reasonable to estimate ballpark per acre savings from cover crops at $28 (reduced erosion) + $30 (reduced tillage) + $22 (reduced fertilizer) + $100 (reduced feed requirements), for a grand total of $180 per acre savings.  To be sure, cover crops also add some labor and seed costs. The costs of using cover crops can vary widely depending on needs and farming practices. The various costs include materials: seed, special equipment for planting, and applicators; and labor costs: planting, maintenance, and burning down of the cover crops before planting commodity crops. 

In addition to those noted above, cover crops can provide a variety of other benefits, including increased water holding capacity, beneficial habitat for pollinators, reduced weed pressure, and disease reduction.

In the long run, cover crops cut input costs, improve efficiency, and eventually increase crop yields. Farmers who used cover crops to regenerate their soil had higher yields than farmers who did not use cover crops. This yield benefit was most pronounced in the most drought-impacted states, highlighting how healthy soil is one of the best “insurance policies” available to farmers. Yet only about 2% of acres in the heart of farm country currently use cover crops. To increase adoption, we could offer cover cropping farmers the equivalent of a “good driver discount” on their crop insurance, as NRDC suggested in its “Soil Matters” report. With increasing disastrous weather-related farming risks, it’s more important than ever to make sure American farms are prepared to withstand the elements. (See how extreme weather affected crops in your state and county here.)

Farmers need to cover up in the winter, as do I as I learned the hard way this weekend. And put your hat on, it’s getting cold out there!

Article by Anna Kheyfet, courtesy of Switchboard, the National Resources Defense Council

All images added by FarmOn – images do not have any affiliation with National Resources Defense Council.

Link photo courtesy of chestbayprogram

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