4 Ways to Optimize Cover Crop Benefits

Adding cover crops to your rotation can help improve soil health while offering flexibility to your no-till operation and improving the bottom line.

Pictured Above: NOT ROBBING THE LAND. Shawn Freeland, Caputa, S.D., uses cover crop rotations and grazing his 400 head of Angus cattle to improve soil health while capturing as much profit as possible from the land

Prior to the Green Revolution, cover crops were very common in cash crop rotations, as they were recognized as being useful for fixing nitrogen (N), suppressing weeds and preventing erosion. The development of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides changed all that and the proliferation of monocultures swiftly followed. But cover crops are making a comeback, as their importance to healthy soils — and the balance sheet — are being increasingly well documented. To improve your chances of succeeding with cover crops, consider the following strategies.   

1. Select for Complementary Functions

In a crop rotation system, it is important to choose cover crops with functional diversity says Jennifer Blesh, an agroecologist with the University of Michigan. However, there is some debate out there about how much diversity is ideal. 

“What I’ve found is the importance of making sure that cover crop species have functional complementarity,” Blesh says. “For example, one species has N-fixing abilities, like legumes, while another species has nutrient scavenging abilities, such as grasses, and yet another species has weed suppression capabilities, like brassicas.”

To meet this balance between cover crop species, Blesh says that even establishment is essential, so the species of covers and seeding timing must be carefully selected.

“It’s a good idea to try to grow a crop like a small…

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Sarah hill web

Sarah Hill

Sarah Hill is associate editor for the ag division, contributing primarily to Precision Farming Dealer, Strip-Till Farmer, No-Till Farmer and Cover Crop Strategies. Hill has a farm background and graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in Ag Journalism and a minor in Animal Science. She has previously served as managing editor of DairyBusiness and is a member of the National Agri-Marketing Association and American Ag Editors’ Association.

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