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Farming Methods - Cover Crops

I know it is not technically spring yet, although you would have a hard time proving that with the weather we had in Virginia this past weekend.  This is the time of year though when you can just see spring trying to break through.  In many places, as you drive past fields that have been brown and covered with crop residue for most of the winter, there is now green peeking through.  While the warmer than normal temperatures do have some impact on this, for many of those fields that green would be showing about now anyway, thanks to cover crops.

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Photo from muncievoice.com

Cover crops are one of the many sustainable practices that farmers can use to help improve soil quality and health, increase productivity, and help to protect the environment.  As the “cash” crops such as corn and soybeans are removed in the fall, farmers can choose to go through those fields again and plant a cover crop.  What is a cover crop??  Pretty much exactly what it sounds like; a crop that is planted to help give the ground cover during the winter and early spring to help hold the soil in place.  Farmers can approach cover crops in several different ways, and there are many different options to choose from.  Many will combine these cover crops with no-till….meaning that as they take the corn or soybeans off they will leave that crop residue in the field and will not till the stalks and roots under.  This provides an extra layer to help hold the soil in place.  They will then come along and plant a cover crop in between the crop residue.  This can be something like turnips, hairy vetch, clover, oats, rye, barley, wheat or one of several options.  The option that a farmer may choose will depend on their goal for that particular field.  On our farm, we plant some rye in fields where we plan on wintering some of our yearling heifers.  The rye will germinate, and will not only provide some highly nutritious food for those animals, but will also help hold the soil in place to prevent erosion during the wind, rain and snow.  In other fields we plant barley and wheat, which we can then harvest in late spring before planting another cash crop in that particular field.  The barley and wheat will be sold or used for livestock feed, and the stalks will be turned into straw.  On some farms, the cover crop is killed and the residue left to provide extra nutrients and organic matter for the soil and the cash crop that will be planted after.

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Long term use of cover crops is one tool that can help farmers to be more productive, although the initial cost of those cover crops can be a deterrent.  It usually takes several years of continuous cover crops to see a cost benefit as well as an environmental and productivity benefit.  That being said, cover crops have several benefits for the soil and the farmer; they can increase the organic matter and nutrients in the soil, help hold the soil in place, break the pest cycle of the field as different plants have different pests that are associated with them, and decrease weeds by keeping a continuous cover which does not allow for weeds to become established.  All of this can improve soil health and overall productivity, and benefits the environment because it decreases pesticide and fertilizer use. 
 
We’ll be sharing information on different farming methods throughout the year; so if you have a method you would like to know more about, feel free to reach out to us!
 
Monday, February 20, 2017
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