7 Things I Learned By Planting Cover Crops

I have been using cover crops for 4 years now in Central Illinois, and it has been a fun ride.  My interest in covers began with wanting to improve my soil engine, or soil biology and to reduce my dependence on fertilizer.  With a background in biology and a passion for it, I was convinced that there had to be a better way to farm my acres, and I wanted to unlock my soils potential.  So, here are a few benefits and pointers I have learned about covers crops.

  • You CAN see results in Year 1… Increased water infiltration, reduced compaction, better soil structure, and drier and warmer Spring soils are real, in the first year.  The best way to raise your yields is to bring the lower yielding areas up.  If you have ponding typically in your field, covers will definitely help.
  • The real benefits come in subsequent years… There are a tremendous amount of nutrients in the soil, but most of them are tied up in the soil colloid.  How do we access these nutrients? Microbes and fungi are the key to unlocking these nutrients! And living roots in the soil colonize these helpful microbes and fungi.  The more roots in the soil for longer periods of time, the more soil life works for you.
  • Organic matter is built underground… Less than 1% of the dry matter on top of the ground is converted into organic matter.  Most of the action of building organic matter (which is definitely possible, up to 0.1% per year), occurs underground.  The more diverse mix of roots, the more organic matter will be produced.  Cover crop mixes are phenomenal for helping raise OM.
  • Radishes are like Red Bull to Earthworms… If you can put radishes in your mix, you WILL see earthworm populations increase.  Earthworms are an excellent indicator of soil health and provide many benefits, such as exudates (waste), water infiltration and biological tillage.  I do not have cows or hogs, but I am a livestock farmer…. Earthworms.
  • Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress… You may not have a cover crop stand that looks like a golf course, or wheat field, or a cash crop.  Many growers will see a less than perfect stand, and consider it a failure.  IT IS NOT.  Something growing in the field is better than nothing growing in the field.  What ever is growing in the field is capturing sunlight, converting it into carbon, and feeding the microbial life.  We should strive for great stands in our cover crops, but don’t let a spotty stand, deter you from continuing to try them again.
  • Try them with no out-of-pocket money… Talk to your NRCS office about trying cover crops on a small part of your farm, in order to get familiar/comfortable with them.  There are short term programs that can help get you started.
  • There is a bunch of help out there… Social media has allowed an awesome amount of sharing and learning to take place much faster than ever before! Search Twitter for #covercrops and follow those people that are commenting.  (You can follow our journey at bzimmrmn) You will get the good, the bad, and the ugly.  You can also get bleeding edge practices that are being tried, and you will find something that you can use.  On Facebook, ‘Everything cover crops’ and ‘cover crop innovators’ are great groups to join for being able to ask questions, post pictures, and get feedback for your operation.

The best time to experiment with cover crops is last year.  The next best time is this year.  Try something on a small amount of acres and see for yourself.  I promise you, it will become a healthy addiction! Shift your mindset, and big things will happen!!


All the Best,

Brad Zimmerman

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