Cover Crops and No-Till: The Business Case for Healthy Soil Practices
A common quote you’ll hear in the agriculture industry is “Mother nature is modest. She doesn’t like to be left naked.”
When you leave bare earth, there’s a good chance that nature will cover it, and it likely won’t be with someone you want there. In the end, you’ll find yourself working harder for poorer soil.
With healthy soil practices in place, you can build up any land so that it’s more nutritious and less work. One of the ways to do that is through cover crops. Keep reading to learn more about these and how modern farming equipment can help.
What Are Cover Crops?
A cover crop is anything that is planted for the benefit of the soil rather than the farmer. While you may be able to harvest something from them, their primary purpose is to get the land ready for your cash crops or a garden.
Cover crops are most often legumes or grasses but can be any green plant. They are just one of many healthy soil practices modern farmers are using to ensure the continued success of their operation.
Here are some of the other benefits of cover crops:
- Improved water retention
- Better biodiversity
- Break disease cycles
These can be planted as soon as your cash crops are pulled for the year and be allowed to grow throughout the fall and winter months.
Other Healthy Soil Practices
Let’s get into some other healthy soil practices that will help you get the most out of your land with the least amount of work.
1. Reduce or Eliminate Tilling
Excessive tilling of the soil can have a negative impact on its quality. The most significant way is too much soil disturbance stimulates microbes to decompose all of the organic matter in the soil which removes nutrients over time.
While some soil disturbance can still benefit your soil, you’ll want to make sure you use no-till tools that limit their impact on the earth as you use them. These types of tools will help you avoid soil compaction without removing nutrients through over-oxygenation.
In some systems, it’s impossible to completely avoid tilling. This is particularly true of organic farming. However, in these situations, it’s important to limit soil disturbance as much as possible.
You also want to focus on adding more organic materials to this soil which will offset the loss caused by tilling.
2. Use Mulch
Speaking of organic materials, another healthy soil practice is the use of mulch. This can be in the form of grass clippings, old hay, or wood chips. Whatever you use, it’s a great way to cover up Mother Nature and add nutrients back into the soil.
This organic matter breaks down over time and adds nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth and crop health. Without it, your plants will often have stunted growth and may not produce fruit.
Adding mulch throughout the growing season or following a harvest is the easiest way to organically improve your soil. It’s also inexpensive as you can get many types of mulch for free or cheap.
3. Crop Rotation
When you continuously plant the same type of crop in the same area, it pulls the same nutrients from the soil, leaving it depleted. That’s why so much of modern farming typically involves adding nutrients back into the soil.
Fortunately, there is a better way and that’s through crop rotation. Cover crops are a great example of this, but you can also rotate other crops through a field to ensure the soil is getting back the nutrients it’s losing with your main crop.
The most important aspect of crop rotation is to switch between crops that use nitrogen and those that put it back into the soil. You’ll also want to avoid crops that have the same pests and diseases to break those cycles.
Crop rotation can also be done throughout the year with several different crops being planted in the same field during different times of the year. Alternatively, you can plant a different crop every year in the same field.
4. Add Animals or Animal Waste
Another type of rotation you can do to give your soil a boost is using animals directly on the land or else spreading animal waste on an area. This is one of the best ways to add nitrogen to the soil because of how much of it is found in animal waste.
The first way to use animals to improve soil quality is to place them directly on the land prior to the planting season. Chickens and pigs are particularly suited for this job and can even help till the soil if needed.
Animals will also eat down the cover crops so you don’t have to worry about those, and can spread mulch or compost which can make your job easier. Portable fencing makes it easy to put livestock exactly where you need them.
If placing these animals directly onto your fields isn’t an option, you’ll want to find a way to spread animal waste onto these areas to improve the soil.
5. Avoid Soil Compaction
Soil compaction happens when there’s a lot of foot traffic on a field and is more common in areas that don’t have cover crops.
You don’t want soil compaction to occur for the following reasons:
- More soil erosion
- Loss of water
- Difficult for plants to put down roots
- Lower biodiversity
One of the easiest ways to avoid compaction is to keep people and equipment off of fields, particularly when it’s wet and pliable.
Another way is to use inversion tilling. This method doesn’t disturb the soil as much as traditional tilling so you won’t lose too many nutrients but it will help the soil stay loose enough for helpful insects and plant roots.
Want the Best Modern Agriculture Tools?
Now you know how cover crops can help you maintain a high soil quality along with other healthy soil practices. With these tips, you can put in less work and get more out of your land.
To get the most out of your time and work, you’ll need some modern farming tools. Check out our buyer’s guide to find the best equipment for your agriculture operation.