How Does Cover Cropping Improve Agriculture?
by Evan DeMarco on Oct 04, 2022
It’s hard to miss the fact that the planet is in danger: from massive climate events like Hurricane Ian and the West Coast wildfires to droughts and mass extinctions, climate change is wreaking havoc. Plus, our topsoil layer is disappearing, leading to rapid desertification across the planet.
Everything we can do to help counts, whether that’s passing massive electrical vehicle legislation, like in California—or simply using cover cropping on our industrial farms.
Cover cropping is a time tested method that doesn’t just protect our rapidly depleting topsoil layer. It actually improves it. Whether you’re new to regenerative agriculture or want to find new ways to help solve climate issues, cover cropping is worth your attention.
Here’s how this method can help improve agriculture across the globe.
What is a cover crop?
Picture your average farm. They usually have rows of plants, whether that’s strawberries, kale, broccoli or other in-demand foods. In between the rows, the soil is bare. When it’s harvest time, the plants are ripped out of the ground and the soil is left bare.
Leaving fields and soil bare is a good way to contribute to topsoil erosion from rain, snow melt and wind. Cover crops are the answer: they’re planted after the harvest and remain in the ground over the winter, to protect the soil. In the spring, when it’s almost time to plant wheat, soybeans and more, farmers kill the plants and leave them on the surface, or incorporated into the soil for further nutrient distribution.
Cover crops are considered a long-term plan for better soil health and farm management—although you might see results within the first year, it can take a few years before there’s a net positive return, overall.
How cover crops help improve agriculture—and save the planet
Here’s how cover crops can help improve agriculture:
- Protect the topsoil: As you already know, cover crops can help protect topsoil from washing away. That’s due to the roots, which dig deep into the soil and hold it in place, even during inclement weather.
- Increase crop yields: Crop yields grow slowly but consistently. After five years of cover cropping, farmers will see 3 percent increases in corn and nearly five percent in soybeans. In drought years, farmers saw increases of nearly 10 to 12 percent, respectively. That’s a big benefit for a relatively small investment.
- Break through plow pans: Soil can be compacted over time, which is why farmers use plows or tills to break up seed beds. Here’s the good news: cover cropping can actually break through plow pans, reducing or eliminating the need for plowing and tilling.
- Attract pollinators: You’ve undoubtedly heard about how bees are in danger—which means that crops are, too. Cover crops attract pollinators throughout the year, giving them a more habitable environment and encouraging them to flourish. Plus, the more they’re around, the more likely they’ll stick around to pollinate further crops.
- Improve crop diversity: When you choose your cover crops wisely, they’re a great way to improve your crop and nutrient diversity. Different plants have different nutrient requirements—choose a cover crop that will replenish what your cash crop depletes, and you’ll get better results from all of your plants.
- Add organic material to soil: When the cover crop is either harvested or killed to prepare for planting season, the organic material is left on the soil. Eventually this decays and is absorbed into the soil, providing nutrients and organic material for the soil microbiome—including the worms and other critters which help aerate the soil and allow plants to grow.
- Improve water retention: Cover crops are a good way to improve water retention in the soil. Because the plants “cover” the field, and the roots penetrate into the ground, the soil stays put. When it rains—or the field is watered—that plant coverage prevents water from evaporating before it can absorb into the soil.
Whether you’re planting your own garden or working in an industrial agriculture environment, it’s worth considering a cover crop. The benefits to the environment outweigh the extra effort—and once you find out what tilling and plowing does to the soil, you’ll be right there with us.
Cover cropping has been around for millennia, but is gaining popularity thanks to its inherent planetary benefits. If you’re interested in advocating for better farming practices, make sure your local, state and federal representatives know about this helpful technique.