Cover Crops a Tool With Huge Potential – When Used Properly

Kent Solberg

Kent Solberg

By Kent Solberg • SFA Livestock & Grazing Specialist

It’s encouraging that the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest news outlet, is plastering cover crops across the front page of the business section like in this recent article. Cover crops are a tremendous tool to move agriculture toward healthy soils. However, cover crops are simply that – a tool. They are not a silver bullet.

Cover crops work best in concert with the Five Principles of Soil Health: keep the soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, increase crop diversity, keep a living root in the soil year around, and integrate livestock. This has been the underlying message at our Midwest Soil Health Summit for the past two years and will continue in 2016.

Soil Health Principles magnet designResearch and on-farm experience in Minnesota has demonstrated that it is often difficult with our short growing season and potential for an extended dry spell in late summer or fall to incorporate cover crops into the conventional corn and soybean model. While these techniques have show great promise in the southern and eastern Corn Belt, our climate makes this more risky.

The huge danger here, and has been, that many farmers may try using covers in corn and soybeans in a similar manner and may not achieve the desired results – arriving at the conclusion that cover crops don’t work in Minnesota and thus condemning an extremely valuable soil health tool. And, in general, they will be right – but only for that particular application.

If the goal is soil health, corn and soybean producers will likely need to rethink their production model. No-till is a soil conservation tool that came on the scene about 25 years ago. Many producers tried it in their corn and soybean production model and found it “doesn’t work here.” However, like cover crops, when farmers no-till in combination with other soil health tools it works just fine. Like cover crops, no-till is a soil health tool and not the silver bullet.

And when used in the context of the Five Principles, they have the potential to be a transformative force in agriculture and on the health of our land.