Traditionally, cover crops are defined as a non-harvested crop purposely planted in between cash crops. However, just because they are typically not harvested does not mean they are less important. Cover crops play a vital role at our farm by helping us attain healthy and biologically vibrant soils.
Cover crops have widespread benefits including:
- erosion control
- increased biodiversity
- nutrient cycling
- pest & disease control
- increase water holding capacity
- weed suppression
Let’s discuss a few of these benefits in more detail.
The different cover crop cocktails we grow would make incredible feed for the livestock we have on our farm. However, the livestock we aim to feed with most of our cover crops is the livestock we have in the soil. This diverse micro-ecology made up of bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, and fungi all require nutrients to feed off of and to grow. When you till green, succulent, still-living crops (“green manure”) into the soil, it gives all the microbes and bugs that are in the soil a super-charged nutrient injection and really helps get the biology flowing in the soil. You can also work in cover crops that have died or been mowed off and turned brown. Once all the lignin in this crop browns up and is no longer green, it takes longer to break down in the soil, so you can increase the organic matter in your soils that way.
Cycling soil nutrients is another benefit of cover crops. After a cash crop is harvested, there will always be some leftover nutrients that the harvested crop hasn’t used. When cover crops are planted they will scavenge those nutrients and bring them back up into the plant. That way when that crop is worked back into the soil, the nutrients are available for the next cash crop to use. Had the soil been left bare, those leftover nutrients would have leeched away and been unavailable for the next crop.
Another great reason to plant cover crops is to capture atmospheric nitrogen via legumes. Legumes form a symbiotic relationship with bacteria called Rhizobia within root nodules of their root systems. These bacteria have the special ability to take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it to ammonia, which is used as a nitrogen source for plants. When the plants and their roots decay back into the soil, they release that nitrogen into a form used by other plants. The air we breathe contains nearly 80% nitrogen, so it’s common sense to me that we plant crops that can capture this free fertilizer source rather than rely on purchased inputs.
Soil loss is a major concern for us humans. The use of cover crops to help keep the soil covered for more months of the year is an extremely effective tool to help combat soil erosion. The combination of above-ground plant material and below ground roots work together to hold the soil structure and protect the soil from the damaging effects of wind and rain.
In sum, cover crops should be part of every farmer’s toolbox. The myriad of benefits that they provide to help increase soil health can play a pivotal role in helping to regenerate productive soils. Remember, it’s not only sustainability that we are after, but also a regeneration of our environment through healthy, soil-building farming practices.
John Place’s interest in pastured livestock began as a college student studying agriculture in New Zealand, where he learned the many benefits of a pasture-based system vs. America’s standard conventional grain-based, feedlot systems. In 2007, he decided to use this knowledge to found Keepsake Farm, a raw milk dairy farm in Nazareth, PA, which he still owns, operates, and calls home. In 2012, John teamed up with Paul Profeta and Joanne Malino to found Profeta Farms, where he is currently the Chief Operating Officer.