Protect Your Soil, Salvage Yields for Years to Come

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How are you protecting your soils — the lifeblood of every row crop operation?

“We have to look at our soil as living, and living things need to be fed,” says Brendon Blank, crop consultant in Wisconsin. “That’s what we’re doing with cover crops. The more life we have there, the more productive it is, it’s just hard to measure.”

Most things in ag are easy to measure, but with soil there’s a certain amount of faith you put into what you’re building. Think about livestock — you know how much grain or grass it takes to make one pound, and you know what you can sell the meat for, so it’s easy to see return on investment. Think of soil the same way, the microbes are the livestock you’re feeding and the grain you harvest is the ‘meat’ you’re selling.

However, measuring the benefit of cover crops can be more challenging. If you’ve done any research on the practice, you know it can boost microbial activity, which increases organic matter and reduces the need for some synthetic fertilizer. The thing is, it takes time, and it can be difficult to measure all the benefits.

In for the long haul

You’ve heard the adage “good things take time,” the expression holds true with soil health practices. Don’t expect instant results — if you get them, great, but if you don’t it’s not that it won’t work, or you did something wrong. It takes years to damage soil, and it takes years to rebuild.

“With cover crops, it’s a long-term thing,” Blank says. “If you have the mindset, I’m going to try it for one year and see if it works, you’re not setting yourself up for success. Think about your goal for cover crops, why are you doing it? Go in with a reason you’re doing it and measure your success from that.”

A recent study by CTIC surveyed nearly 750 farmers to see how long it took for them to see benefits from cover crops. Respondents were from all over the U.S. and 58% said they saw soil health benefits in under two years.

“We need to look at cover crops as an investment and a way to harvest more sunlight and create healthier soils for the long run,” Blank says.

Benefits to cover crops over the long term can include: increased organic matter, greater microbial activity, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, better water holding capacity, reduced erosion from water and wind, yield increases in cash crops and weed suppression — to name a few.

READ MORE - Principles of soil management

Potential pitfalls

Aside from the uncertainty of how long it will take to see benefits in your soil, or see positive return on investment, there are other challenges to cover crops in which you should be aware. Keep these in mind and consider how you can offset risks before getting started.

Aside from initial cost of seed and planting, the next area new cover croppers might have trouble is planting their cash crop as early as they’re used to without cover crops. According to CTIC, these are the three main reasons farmers experienced delays:

Terminated cover crop formed a wet mat on the soil surface, preventing it from drying out for planting.
Couldn’t work the field with tillage to dry it out.
Could terminate the cover crops because the group was too wet.
Additional challenges include cover crop regrowth and delayed breakdown of biomass because of weather conditions. If you’re trying cover crops, or relatively new to them, be aware of these challenges and try to have contingency plans in place.

“However, cover crops can sometimes reduce wetter conditions by absorbing some of that water, too,” Blank says. “It, along with no-till, can also support equipment earlier than tilled fields sometimes, as well. There are challenges, but you can often prevent some of those issues with proper planning.”

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