Sustainable and Yes, Profitable Farming with Cover Crops

 Jim Boak

By Jim Boak

At Salford, our travels through farming communities across North America have revealed a renewed and unprecedented level of interest in planting cover crops. On a much larger scale than ever before, we’re seeing farmers embrace cover cropping for its many rewards, including improved financial performance, measured in both revenue and profitability, as well as improving soil health. Soil health is a determinant of higher, more sustainable yields year after year and greatly reduced erosion and surface water runoff into major water supplies. 

As with other aspects of the farm, cover cropping requires a lot of learning. Sure, there’s risk, as with other tasks, and you have to make money—not just more money but more profit. That’s a given. Over many generations, as farmers pursued financial gain and optimal soil health, we grew to be more and more reliant on what many have considered easier, cheaper solutions in the form of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. In contrast to planting cover crops, reliance on solutions from the bottle seemed to require lower initial investment, both in terms of time and money. 

My father’s generation understood cover crops intimately. For him, cover crops were tools to control weeds, reduce soil density, improve soil tilth and obtain higher revenue per acre from the harvest of a forage crop.

Life was made easy for the next generation as they had unprecedented access to crop protection solutions in a bottle—herbicides, fungicides, insecticides. The bottled solutions perhaps made us a little lazy. We didn’t have to take as many factors into account, along with what appeared to be a lower initial investment. 

As with the progress of other industries, the growth of agriculture has seen farmers faced with new and different challenges to the viability of their operations. While in the past we may have farmed 1500 acres with fewer issues, monoculture caused a decline in soil health, resulting in increased input costs and leaving us susceptible to greater risk of erosion and surface water runoff. These factors ultimately resulted in reduced water quality in our lakes and streams. 

The agronomy community and the personnel who staff our agriculture-focused universities have recommended for some time now that we needed to recommit ourselves to soil health. When we apply their advice through education and the adoption of technology, we can return to farming at the square foot level as our grandfathers did, being as close to the ground as they were.

Now equipped with the best in agronomy and tools for utilizing cover crops properly, farms are changing with the times. Better soil health from cover cropping results in greater yields from each successive main crop. We’re no longer need to be stuck in the present, farming for conservation of what we have today. We are able to farm much better than we ever have through proper application of technology, including cover crops. We have the opportunity to earn higher yields faster than we would have imagined. We have the knowledge, the tools and the financial resources to regenerate soil and in doing so reduce our impact on both air and water quality.

So, we’ve got to use cover crops—or any farming tactic, for that matter—in a way that’s affordable on the front end and profitable on the back end. Here are some of the universal truths we’re seeing across the US and Canada as more and more operations embrace cover crops.

First, cover cropping immediately increases our ability to grow nutrients, nitrogen in particular, organically. With the added biodiversity and the extended period of living roots, the soil will release greater amounts of elements like phosphorous, potash and Sulphur into the soil solution, therefore making them more available in greater quantities for the next crop. 

Second, through the use of cover crops, you improve soil structure to protect against compaction. You’re usually able to reduce soil density which improves the ability of the crop root system to grow faster and deeper with more access to nutrients. You will notice a big difference in a root system’s appearance after a cover crop in relation to those prior to cover cropping. 

Next, weed control can be enhanced through the use of cover crops. Crops such as sorghum and buckwheat, put pheromones in the soil to inhibit growth of certain weed species. Radishes and similar crops deliver insecticide value as well. They release sulfur to benefit the following crop, leaving it stronger in inhibiting insect damage. For many farms in warmer climates in the US, we see cover cropping done as double cropping. 50 percent of our wheat farmers are planting soybeans just after the main harvest, enabling farms to see just how far they can push profits while also improving soil health. 

While no till strategies are thought of as effective for retaining phosphorous for erosion control, with cover crops, a farmer can achieve a certain level of necessary tillage for preparation of germination zones while still preventing erosion. 

Other, less measurable advantages of cover cropping are the increased carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide sequestration. We don’t give these savings much thought, but perhaps we should. Carbon dioxide is a key component of photosynthesis. We could not grow a thing without carbon dioxide, and the soil is gassing it off at .25%. Nitrous oxide is the fuel for the engine of ozone depletion. So sequestering N20 simply by keeping the soil covered and populated with living roots is a big factor in climate change – not to mention that nitrogen is costing you money to purchase, so keeping it on the farm ultimately fattens your bank account. 

If you’re interested in getting in the game with cover crops, it’s important to understand both the risks and rewards of this practice. There’s a wealth of information out there from research agencies and extensions, and as with any other farming practice, the more you educate yourself, the more you minimize your risk and optimize potential earnings. It’s really no different than the due diligence you perform when you look to buy a piece of land to farm. 

Research will reveal to you which compatible, companion crops are best for your soil in your area. Lastly, pay attention to your herbicide programs. The knowledge and support is all there—you just won’t find it all in one spot right now. You may need to rely on a team of professionals or spend a good amount of time on the web to sort through the amazing amount of information that is available. But you already have a team of experts in place, right? Perhaps you’ve neglected to ask them the right questions thus far!