Cover crops are a cornerstone of every sustainable agriculture strategy. They provide a whole host of benefits with hardly any drawbacks, across several different climates. If used correctly, they can improve soil water retention capacity, biodiversity, yields, and more.
Cover crops should be viewed as a long-term investment in improved soil health and farm management. They can begin to pay for themselves in the first year of use, or it may take a few years for them to lead to a net positive return.
A cover crop is a plant that is grown mainly to benefit the soil rather than to be harvested for profit. Cover crops are commonly used to suppress weeds, manage soil erosion, help build and improve soil fertility and quality, control diseases and pests, and promote biodiversity.
There are several plants that can be used as cover crops, but most typical are grasses or legumes such as clover. The most common way to implement cover crops is by planting them in the off-season, prior to planting the primary cash crop. A cover crop prepares the land and soil for the incoming cash crop, so the farmer can have a better chance of a high-yielding, profitable season.
Some good examples of cover crops include:
Cover cropping is the process of using cover crops to benefit the soil prior to planting the main cash crop. The cover crop is planted in the off-season, and then is allowed to grow out. Once it is fully grown, the conventional farmer will typically mow it down and allow it to dry out, before tilling it into the soil.
Organic farmers, on the other hand, take a different approach - particularly in drought-stricken areas. In low-moisture conditions, it makes more sense to leave the harvested cover crop on the ground as a mulch layer. This slows the rate of evaporation of water from the soil, and also means farmers don't have to resort to tilling the soil.
Cover cropping is one of the closest things agriculture has to a silver bullet in terms of best practices. In other words, cover crops carry a wide array of benefits with no serious drawbacks or obstacles to implementation. Some benefits of cover crops include:
Cover crops are a key part of sustainable agriculture. They bring immense benefit to soil health, soil surface and organic matter, which is the whole aim of regenerative agricultural practices. Though it may take some time to see initial returns on investment, your pockets, fields, soils, and future generations will thank you for it one hundred-fold.
More on sustainable agriculture practices: Pasture Cropping: A Holistic Approach to Grain and Pasture Production