Cover crops’ environmental impact is essential, economical

Emily M. Hobbs Staff Writer

December 9, 2013

Sampson Soil and Water Conservation District provided an opportunity for local farmers to brush up on the importance of cover crops in a seminar Monday morning, giving them a chance to listen to presentations and ask questions about their need for sources that can help each farmer better grow their crops and positively impact the environment. Using cover crops improves soil quality and the overall health of the soil by bringing nutrients up to the top of the soil as well as breaking up the compacted soil that is deep down, as well as through a variety of other methods, speakers said.

Steve Woodruff, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, explained the value of planting cover crops by bringing in two plants in what he called root boxes. Woodruff, with the NRCS National Technology Support Center, explained a variety of advantages of using cover crops and how using simpler biological methods can improve the environment and yields.

“To quote Ray Archeuleta, ‘the soil is naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever,’” said Woodruff. He explained that partnerships have been formed through grants in some areas as well. Part of the goal of planting cover crops is drought-proofing farms and working on water retention. Topics that were covered included timely seeding, the timely termination of cover crops, proper seeding rates and proper handling of cover crops. He said that terminating a crop too early can result in the farmer not seeing the desired results, thus limiting the impact of the production increase in yield that would have otherwise happened over a period of time.

Woodruff’s root boxes gave the attendees a visual example of exactly how the root system of the two common cover crops work. The boxes, which were built out of what looks to be wood and Plexiglas, have a side window that goes down the length of the boxes showing exactly how far down the roots can grow.

“This shows the importance of the root system in cover crops,” Woodruff said. “The biomass of the plants benefit both above and below ground by bringing nutrients that are buried in the soil back up from below ground.”

The two cover crop examples that he brought in root boxes were cereal rye and Tillage radishes.

Dwayne Faircloth, with Sampson Soil and Water Conservation, detailed statistics about cover crops and how their implementation compares to conventional farming techniques. By using cover crops, he said, farmers can often eliminate steps in their routine, not only saving time, but also saving money by reducing fuel expenses. With fuel being so high the benefits that a farmer can receive can positively impact their farms and crops, by benefiting the farmer financially as well as environmentally.

“Using cover crops saves time, money, fuel and the soil,” said Faircloth. This reduction in soil erosion is particularly beneficial over the long term. Faircloth that there are a few learning curves, and that farmers sometimes have questions and concerns throughout the process. Farmers wonder if they should have prayed prior to planting or followed their seeding charts more closely. Soil tests are available to determine the benefits of the processes, and can illuminate the results for farmers when the changes may not be a visible to the naked eye.

Cover crops can prevent compaction, lead to higher soil moisture, reduce the need for fertilizers, all the while creating a healthier soil. Less erosion, coupled with increased organic matter, all work towards protecting the health of farmer’s neighbors and themselves.

“I know some are just seeing numbers, but there is a lot of soil that isn’t running off,” said Faircloth. It is more than just saving money and increasing yields, the environmental factors are just as essential. Cover crops also reduce nitrate leeching, the need for herbicides, while protecting water quality. These are just some of the benefits of cover crops that Faircloth discussed, and he did advise farmers not to expect all of the benefits all at the same time. Some of the benefits may not happen in certain situations for a variety of reasons, and farmers are encouraged to focus on their priorities.

“Farmers need to list out their priorities and number them according to importance,” said Faircloth. He said that different situations have different needs, and planning is important to determine the short-term and long-term impacts of chosen paths.

Emily M. Hobbs can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 122 or via email at