Cover Crops for Enhancing Soil Health and Crop Production
March 22, 2020
While there is still plenty of the growing season ahead of us, it is never too early to start thinking about maintaining the health of your soil in the offseason. This is especially true if you went the route of prevented planting versus late planting due to the flooded soil conditions that plagued much of the Midwest earlier in the season. Diverse, rich soil and cover crops are two important components to success and in today’s blog, we’ll take a closer look at each of them. Let’s get started.
The Importance of Biodiverse, Rich Soil Life
As a primary function of agriculture operations, soil biodiversity is necessary for successful and sustainable growing seasons. This careful balance of natural ecosystems within the soil can have a large impact on yield and so it only makes sense that you’d want the best soil life possible. So how do you gauge the biodiversity of your soil? The following conditions could indicate something is off:
- Increased pest infestation
- Increased weed pressure
- Evidence of plant diseases
- Slow seed germination
- Plants with stunted growth
- Changes in the soil structure itself
- Crop residue buildup
Tips for Achieving Biodiversity and Richness
Encouraging biodiversity might seem like a monumental undertaking, but there are a few things you can do to help ensure optimal soil health. Three of these include:
Rotate the Crops You Plant
If possible, avoid continuous crop production of the same plants year after year. Growing different crops prevents excessive nutrient depletion and reduces soil erosion while increasing soil health and crop yield. Additionally, alternating between deep-root and shallow-root crops can improve soil stability and prevent recurring pest infestations.
In the absence of sufficient food, soil microbes are unable to build up resources and reserves during the fall and winter for optimal soil health in the spring. Using prebiotics and fertilizer treatments like IgniteS2® and IgniteS4® to feed microbes allows you to:
1) increase soil porosity and expedite soil aggregation, and
2) stimulate microbial activity in order to breakdown crop residues in preparation for the next seedbed.
Plant Cover Crops
Cover crops are those plants that are grown with the specific intent of protecting and enriching the soil. This is especially recommended for those growers who were impacted by the unprecedented flooding in the Midwest in Spring 2019. When paired with high-quality prebiotics and fertilizer treatments, cover crops are a great way to sustainably and effectively revitalize nutrient-lacking soil.
Why Plant Cover Crops?
There are several benefits to planting cover crops. A few of them include:
Reduced Instances of Fallow Syndrome
Letting your field be fallow in the offseason might be tempting, but it can prove problematic and result in Fallow Syndrome. This condition is caused by reduced amounts of certain fungi which can impact a plant’s ability to take up nutrients like phosphorus and zinc. In turn, this can cause stunted plant growth. Planting cover crops can help reduce the likelihood of future crops being affected by Fallow Syndrome.
Enhance Soil Health and Fertility
Cover crops help to improve the quality of your soil in many different ways. First, the physical and biological health of the soil is improved, as is water availability. Planting cover crops is also an excellent way to suppress weeds that would otherwise take over fields that are left fallow. Some cover crop roots can even break up compacted layers of soil, which makes it easier for the roots of subsequent crops to develop to their full potential.
Provide Nutrients for Subsequent Crops
In addition to enhancing soil health and fertility, cover crops also increase levels of organic matter in the soil. This is a sustainable means of providing nutrients for subsequent crops, further enhancing the quality of the soil by providing residues that are readily available to be used by soil organisms. Selecting the right type of cover crop based on subsequent crops needs is important to maximizing the benefits of this planting practice.
Soil is more prone to erosion when there are no crops planted in it. Land that is allowed to be fallow in between planting cycles or growing seasons is especially susceptible to washout. Not only does erosion change the layout of your land, but it also robs the soil of essential nutrients that plants need to thrive. Planting cover crops reduces the severity of erosion and can even enhance soil health when crop fertilizers include treatments and additives like IgniteS2® and IgniteS4®
Break Pest Cycles
Crop pests can cause incredible amounts of destruction and financial devastation to even the most established commercial agricultural operation. These infestations may be more likely to occur when the same crops are planted over and over again, as they supply an almost endless food source for the problem pest. Planting cover crops can help break the cycle of troublesome insects, birds, rodents, and other pests that plague your crop production.
Seasonal Cover Crop Tasks
What can you do each season to ensure your cover crop planting endeavor is a success? The checklist below offers helpful insights and tips.
- Consider which crops will facilitate early seeding for your fall cover crop
- Perform soil tests on pH level, organic matter, and biodiversity to serve as benchmarks for later comparisons
- Determine how and when you will terminate your cover crop
- Test water for nitrite levels and record findings for later comparison
- Test soil for compaction and water filtration, recording your findings
- Plant cover crops as soon as possible after harvest
- Record crop yields during harvesting
- Educate yourself on cover crops, soil health, and soil biology
- Identify the worst erosion areas and set long-term goals
- Fine-tune your cover crop plan
- Line up seed, equipment, and other necessities for planting cover crops
- Check into cost-sharing with the Natural Resources Conservation Service
Boost Soil Health and Crop Yields
Are you searching for ways to enhance soil health in the offseason after harvesting your cash crop? Maybe you have noticed a decrease in yield and suspect that soil health is to blame? AgriGro® offers prebiotics, fertilizer treatments, and other crop products that can help enhance your cover crop efforts while boosting the soil’s biodiversity. Locate an AgriGro® dealer or contact our team to learn more about the science behind our products.