What Are Cover Crops?

Have you heard about cover crops but not aren’t sure what that term means, what purpose they serve, or how to use them within your garden or agricultural cropping system? Cover crops are a “temporary” crop grown to improve soil health and fertility; they are not grown for consumption. Cover cropping has been a strategy used by farmers since ancient times and there are many reasons to incorporate this farming technique today. Cover crops can increase soil fertility and organic matter, improve soil structure and water infiltration, prevent soil erosion, benefit pollinator species, and limit pest and disease outbreaks.

One of the greatest benefits of using cover crops is for building soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is created by the decomposition of organic material from plants, animals, and microorganisms. This decomposition process is crucial for nutrient availability, water absorption and retention, and feeding necessary soil micro-organisms and earthworms. Adequate or high organic matter also improves soil structure which is important for root development and prevention of soil compaction. Cover crops can be especially useful for increasing organic matter in sandy soils which tend to have a very low organic matter content.

A few cover crops are well known for adding organic matter to the soil such as oats, cereal rye, and buckwheat. These cover crop plants tend to grow a large amount of green plant material above ground during the growing season. The green plant material is then chopped, mowed, or crimped down and left on the soil surface to add to the organic matter in the soil. The soil microorganisms (think earthworms) will begin breaking down the plant material and incorporating it into the soil. Another benefit of cover crops is weed suppression. When an area is planted to cover crops, rather than left bare, they help reduce weed pressure and can outcompete weeds for water and nutrients. This can greatly reduce the need for weeding or chemicals to control weeds.

Cover cropping can be utilized by anyone whether your garden is as small as 4 feet by 4 feet in size or a 40-acre crop field. Cover cropping may seem overwhelming at first because there are so many options. To get started, identify your primary objective for adding cover crops to your area or field, start small, and learn as you go. Starting out with a single species cover crop may be best for beginners compared to starting out with more complex cover crop mixes. Planting a test area of cover crops in your garden or crop field is suggested rather than planting your entire farm or garden into cover crops when you are starting out. I will add that patience is also an important factor in using cover crops in your growing operation as the benefits may not be immediately visible.

In conclusion, cover crops are a great way to improve soil organic matter and fertility, soil health, increase weed suppression, and can be utilized in gardens and in cropland systems.

If you would like to learn more about implementing cover cropping on your property, reach out and set up a site visit by contacting me at Kelly.Sippl@usda.gov or 906-251-3064.