Cover crops are trending, but what exactly are they and can they add real value to your farm? DPH agronomist and row crop farmer Eric Johnston breaks down the basics.

What are cover crops?
13-species cover crop on Eric's farm

13-species cover crop on Eric’s farm

Cover crops are basically non-cash crops, meaning you don’t harvest and resell them. They are planted after harvesting a cash crop in the winter or before planting a cash crop in the spring. On our farm, we like to have something green growing all year round to [avoid] bare soil.

What are the key benefits?

Cover crops are grown to build the soil. You are essentially feeding microbes, earthworms — all your “underground livestock” — that help increase organic matter and cycle nutrients. Keeping your soil covered [helps] with erosion in the spring and captures sunlight. Also, there is a lot of talk today about losing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into our waterways. By having a cover crop and anchoring that soil year-round, you’re capturing those nutrients from run-off. They aren’t leaving the farm; the cover crops are taking them up through the roots, so they are good for the environment.

What are the challenges?

It is an extra management step to try and get things planted right after a busy harvest. There is the expense of putting the seed in and planting it. But more farmers every year are using cover crops because they understand the benefits to the soil, [which include] preventing soil erosion, controlling pests and disease and encouraging biodiversity.

Eric's son Cullen pulls a radish from the field

Eric’s son Cullen pulls a radish from the field

Have you seen results on your own farm?

We became big believers and users of biological products and have completely done away with applying dry Phosphorous and Potassium, which is pretty uncommon among farmers today. Instead, we spoon-feed the plant all the nutrients it needs with liquid applications via the planter, sidedress applications and foliars. We use a combination of liquid N, P, K , micronutrients and biological products like SP-1.

Between the use of cover crops, biological products and spoon-feeding liquid products, we are growing better crops than we ever did before and spending less per acre on inputs. We are also losing less Phosphorous and Nitrogen off our farms, and we’re proud that we’re farming more environmentally friendly. We try to farm for the most microbes we can per acre by using cover crops and biological products. Most of the organic matter that is built into the soil is from dead microbes, so the more microbes we can grow, the more our organic matter should increase.

To connect with your regional agronomist, contact us at 800.648.7626 or