cover crops np

The cover crop has played a fundamental role in farming operations around the world for thousands of years. In the grand scope of things, cover crops are a farming tool that have only recently developed a serious following on American soil, but civilizations around the world, from China to Rome and beyond, have relied on cover crops for many centuries. This brings up a question asked by many of America’s farmers—are cover crops here to stay, or are they just another fading trend?

Why cover crops are used in American farming

Statistics make it clear that cover crops are gaining traction in the American big agriculture community, but farmers who have not yet experienced the advantages of using cover crops firsthand might be hesitant to rack up another expense until they fully understand the inherent benefits. Fortunately, the basic advantages of cover crops are simple to understand.

Cover crops— which often include legumes and grasses, though other options exist—are used to fill the space left behind once a primary crop has been harvested, and cover crops remain there until it is time to plant. They are usually used with several objectives in mind. They help keep soil erosion under control and are useful for keeping weeds and pests at bay. Cover crops also increase organic soil content while helping to keep essential nutrients in place for use by the following crop.

But even with so many clear benefits, planting cover crops still comes with its fair share of risks and important considerations. The crops can be pricey to grow and manage, and the resources required to develop cover crops from the ground up are not always easy to allocate. Another key risk is that cover crops that do not precisely complement primary crops, and could lead to various field troubles, from the development of pest populations to an increased likelihood of disease.

Weighing the data

With both the benefits and disadvantages of cover crops in mind, it comes time to address the primary question: Do cover crops have a long-term place in American agriculture?

Most signs point to a concrete “yes.” While there are undeniable risks associated with the planting of cover crops that is the case with virtually any fresh agricultural trend. And with time, patience and a bit of effort, these obstacles can be managed.

Data also suggests that enthusiasm for cover crops is on the increase.

According to the Conservation Technology Information Center’s 2017 Crop Cover Survey, the average farmer dedicated 400 acres to cover crops, up from the 225 acres reported in its 2013 survey.

There is good reason for this increase. According to the same studies, the yields of corn and soybean crops planted after cover crops have continued to increase for five consecutive years. Also according to the 2017 survey, cover crops led to an increase in wheat yields.

Finally, the CTIC survey reported feedback from responding farmers concerning the precise benefits of their cover crops. The majority of sentiments confirmed what most farmers hope to accomplish by planting cover crops. Nearly 70 percent cited improvement in the control of herbicide-resistant weeds, while 85 percent mentioned marked improvements in overall soil health.

The verdict

Whether the use of cover crops will stand the test of time in the face of the ever-evolving agricultural landscape remains to be seen. But with this data in mind, it becomes clear that cover crops have far surpassed the fad stage, and are increasingly being used as a means of controlling soil erosion, managing weeds and pests and preserving key nutrients in the soil in the period between harvest and the following planting season for a primary crop. 

Field shot cover  crops

For more Big Ag related row crop articles click here.

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