Cover crops help improve soil condition

Posted March 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

GUEST COLUMN — CONSERVATION CONVERSATION

By Kate Timmerman, NRCS Soil Conservationist

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a long list of conservation practices including terraces, grassed waterways, nutrient management, wetland enhancement, and livestock watering facilities, to name a few. Each of these practices has a very specific standard that we, as conservation planners, are required to utilize and adhere to, making them a standard from which each of us, regardless of where in the state we are located, can reference.

After a quick glance through our most common practices in Iowa, the only practice that has more purposes than cover crops is a windbreak, but personally, I think cover crops deserve more credit for all that they do in addition to conservation.

The main reasons that NRCS promotes planting cover crops are to reduce erosion from wind and water, increase soil organic matter, capture and recycle or redistribute nutrients in the soil profile, promote biological nitrogen fixation, reduce energy use, increase biodiversity, suppress weeds, manage soil moisture, and minimize soil compaction. The SARE Program (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) cites other benefits of planting cover crops, such as cutting fertilizer costs, reducing the need for herbicides and other pesticides, improving yields by enhancing soil health, preventing soil erosion, protecting water quality, and safeguarding personal health.

Some farmers find cover crops to be an excellent way to extend their grazing season by seeding turnips or radishes for late fall and winter grazing. A farmer in Washington County, Iowa indicates that his cover crop, rye, improves his row crop production by increasing soil organic matter. Another farmer, Joe Kriegel from Malcom, Iowa; plans to plant his corn this spring with no additional nitrogen fertilizer costs, because the rye and radishes from previous crops will provide the nitrogen his crop needs. Still another farmer in Benton County has found that the ground that has a cover crop on it is a great place to apply manure.

Though NRCS lists many conservation purposes for cover crops, Iowa farmers have found other reasons to use them as well.  There are financial assistance programs that offer some cost-share assistance to producers wanting to try cover crops for the first time.

If you are interested in learning more about cover crops, or to apply for cost share, please stop by our office in the USDA Service Center at 300 Chamber Drive in Anamosa, or give us a call at 319-462-3196, ext. 3.

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