Cover crops are main staple on our farm and a soil amendment that we used consistently throughout the season. Anytime that we are prepping a bed to be planted in or amending the soil after removing a spent crop we use cover crops. With so many benefits and so many varieties of cover crops, it would be silly not to take advantage of this simple and versatile strategy for better soil health.
Cover crops provide many potential benefits to soil health, while also helping to maintain a tidy surface and clean groundwater. They prevent erosion, improve the soils physical and biological properties, supply nutrients to the following crop, suppress weeds, improve soil water availability, and break pest cycles. Some cover crops roots can penetrate compacted soil layers, aerating the soil and making it easier for the following crop’s roots to more fully develop.
Grasses and legumes account for most of the seed we use as cover crops. Grasses like rye and sorghum establish quickly which is crucial for weed control. They also create good biomass and have dense highly fibrous root systems that prevent erosion and increase organic matter. Vetch, clover, and field peas are some examples of cover crops in the legume family. Cover crops in this family have a beneficial relationship with specific soil bacteria. The bacteria form nodules that live on the plant's roots convert N2 gas from the surrounding air to plant-available nitrate in a process called nitrogen fixation. Legumes can also produce substantial biomass, attract beneficial insects, and suppress weeds.
We often use the option of mixing both legumes and grass variety of cover crops for our fields. This method can help to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio in the soil. It can also help to obtain multiple benefits or more fully achieve a particular objective like adding organic matter or weed suppression. Planting a combination of cover crops can reduce the risk of crop failure; although it often requires more labor.
Throughout the seasons we have watched our soil quality improve with the use of cover crops and other soil amendments. As we continue to experiments with new techniques, we are watching years of poor soil health rejuvenate right before our eyes.