When it comes to planning a crop rotation, cover crops are not usually part of the conversation, but Johnny Hunter of Avert, Missouri says perhaps they should be.
“We’ve found cover crops offer many advantages,” Hunter says. “We started incorporating cover crops into our fields in 2013 and we’re now covering more than half of our 5,300 acres of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and popcorn. The results we’ve seen since incorporating covers into our operation have been great.”
In his experience with cover cropping, Hunter has observed five reasons why he feels more farmers should consider adding cover crops to their farming operation.
1. Improved Profitability
“The fields we’ve cover cropped have healthier soil profiles and more consistent yield,” Hunter says. “They’re less volatile and we don’t see wild fluctuations in production. That consistency results in better yields and higher profits.”
2. Reduced Inputs
“We lean on our cover crops to scavenge nutrients and fix nitrogen for our cash crops. Last year, our cover created 74 pounds of nitrogen per acre, or the equivalent of $28 per acre according to our soil nitrate testing. The more nitrogen we can produce through cover cropping, the less we have to purchase.”
3. Savings on Herbicides
Cover crops provide natural weed suppression that allows Hunter to forgo some of the herbicide applications he has to make in his non-cover-cropped fields.
“I see the cover crops almost like a residual herbicide,” Hunter says. “I let my cover grow big and tall so that it forms a blanket of biomass that keeps weeds from emerging. We also plant cereal rye that has allelopathic properties that reduces pigweed populations. The cereal rye has helped us dramatically reduce pigweed in our fields.”
4. Enhanced Water Infiltration
Hunter uses moisture monitors buried 4 inches, 8 inches and 12 inches deep in his fields to help determine when his crops need irrigation. He’s found his cover-cropped fields do a much better job of absorbing rainfall than his fields without cover.
“A half-inch rain usually only shows activity at the 4-inch level in our fields where we haven’t planted cover crops. Whereas we’ll see water reaching all the way down to our deepest sensors in our fields with cover. The tiny fibrous roots of the cover crops really help water find its way deeper into the soil and greatly increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.”
The enhanced moisture retention of the soils in his fields with cover allows Hunter to reduce his irrigation costs.
5. Erosion Control and Runoff Prevention
“Cover crops protect our soils from blowing and washing away with their living roots that help to hold the soil in place. The cover also shields the dirt from direct contact with rain droplets, preventing soil particles from detaching from the soil, where they are more susceptible to erosion.”
Source: United Soybean Board