Plants utilize soil nutrients as they grow and farmers need to replenish those nutrients before planting next year’s crops again in the same place.
Many times farmers do this by bringing in off-farm inputs like compost, amendments or fertilizers.
Cover crops, also called green manures, are non-crop plants that provide an on-farm solution to incorporating nutrients into the soil.
They also have numerous other benefits, which include:
• Suppressing weeds by smothering non-crop plants
• Improving soil stability and protecting soil from runoff and erosion with robust root systems and fungi that hold the soil in place
• Adding organic matter to the soil like compost
• Suppressing soil diseases and pests and encouraging beneficial soil microbes
• Fixing nitrogen
• Decreasing the need for pesticides.
• Providing beneficial insect habitat
Choosing the right cover crop for your farm can be a daunting task if you have not tried it before.
Many factors can help determine the right plant for the job. For example, if you are in need of breaking up a hardpan this winter (before you plant in the spring), you can look into planting red clover.
Red clover is a flowering legume which will provide habitat for beneficial insects in the spring and fix nitrogen in the soil.
Cornell University provides a great tool that allows you to choose your goal, the time of year for planting and duration you choose to keep the cover crop in the ground before incorporating it in the soil. Search on http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu/decision-tool.php to find the right cover crop for you.
Many farmers also plant multiple species of cover crop, or a cocktail mix, to incorporate multiple soil-building strategies at one time. You do not have to limit to one type of seed.
Cover crops take away space from cash crops, which can be a challenge with smaller, more intensive market gardens.
Production planning needs integration with your cash crop planning and management as cover crops still require sowing seeds and tilling or mulching once it has reached maturity.
Cover crops require farmers’ time, which can be difficult to integrate inTO an already busy schedule.
As with most farming decisions, you will want to weigh all of the pros and cons of cover crops to see if they work on your farm.
The benefits of cover crops happen gradually over time.
You might not see huge advantages the first year of using them, however, you will see the improvements year after year.
— Rachel Suits works with small farms through OSU Extension.