Cover crops are indispensable in the pursuit of creating a farm that is both ecologically and economically sustainable.
One of the great challenges in farming is to create cost effective production systems. Traditional thinking often includes the concept of purchasing and spreading fertilizer to increase yields. When we purchase farm inputs (like fertilizers, pest control, soil amendments, etc) the result is most often a costly debit to the balance of a crops profitability. Cover crops though, can create more “fertilizer” , for less cost than purchased nutrients. They can also provide a wide array of additional benefits, such as erosion control, soil conditioning, contribution of organic matter, beneficial insect habitats, subsoiling capability, and more…
A cover crop is a crop planted primarily to manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in an agroecosystem.
These cover crops are planted from seed, using a variety of methods. The simplest method is to broadcast seed by hand. A step up from this, is to use a mechanical broadcast seeder. There are many available on the market, and they range in size from handheld to tractor pulled. On the far end of the spectrum are precision drill seeders, powered by large tractors, that are used extensively in large farms throughout the country. One unique design well suited to small farms, uses the common “Earthway" push seeder. By fixing multiple units of these together, the grower can precisely seed large areas with a minimum of expense and effort.
In this blog post, I’ll discuss two cover crops that can be planted over the winter for southern growers, and as soon as the snow melts for northern growers. In a later blog post, I’ll cover a few others cover crops that are great choices after things warm up a bit!
Winter Rye is a workhorse cover crop. It is often the first cover crop aspiring farmers work with. This crop is sown in the fall,winter, or early spring, and then incorporated back into the soil early summer. The seeds will germinate reliably when broadcast at a rate of 50lbs/acre and then covered lightly with soil by raking, disking, or a shallow cultivation using anything from hand held stirrup hoes, up to a tractor pulled rotary tine tiller.
To incorporate back into the soil after the crop has grown, growers can use disk harrows, a rototiller, or on small plots simply turn it over by hand with a shovel. One advantage to using winter rye is that it will not take up valuable space for cash crops during the prime growing season. It is important to not let stands of rye grow over 8” tall, because over this size it can become much more time consuming to eliminate. Leaving a small section of rye left to grow will produce interesting texture for floral design work in the form of both fresh and dried seed pods. For those with the desire to truly create a #beyondorganic, closed loop system, rye is also easy, quick, and efficient to harvest for your future seed needs.
Winter rye will protect soils from erosion, add organic matter to depleted soils, and it’s roots will work to break up compaction in the top layers of soil. One unique benefit to this cover crop, is it’s allelopathic effect when it is incorporated. This means that for 2-3 weeks while the winter rye is starting the decomposition process, it will suppress germination of other seeds. In a system using soil block transplants, the transplants are then given a window of opportunity to overcome planting stress and shock and start growing before weed seed competition starts. Since most farmers have a long urgent list of things to do at planting time, this window of time can be of great benefit.
In conclusion, winter rye is dependable, quick to germinate, and is an excellent choice for adding organic matter to , and protecting soils from erosion. It can be sown nearly anytime of the year when the ground isn't frozen, and will improve your soil’s micro and macro biology. If you are new to cover cropping, this is a great place to start! Sow some as soon as possible, and turn it back into the soil when it’s 6-8 “ tall. You’ll still have a whole growing season ahead for that same piece of land, and you will quickly see first hand the benefits cover crops can deliver.
Field Peas are another excellent choice for fall, winter, and early spring sowing. They are a legume, which means they belong to a family of plants that will fix nitrogen in the soil, store it in nodules located on their roots, and release it when the plants are incorporated back in the soil. The soft, broad leaf structure of peas is particularly useful for conditioning depleted soils when it is incorporated. Peas will contribute large amounts of both nitrogen and organic matter when crops are turned back into the soil, making it a great choice for many different crops in many different regions. Broadcast field peas at a rate of 100/lbs acre anytime the ground is not frozen.
Many large farms practice the technique of “frost seeding” peas, which means to plant the seed crop into cold winter soils so that they germinate and start to grow at the first sign of slightly warmer temps. Smaller market growers can easily adapt this technique as well. Field peas will grow quickly, and in under 60 days can be ready to incorporate back into the soil. This timing, combined with the possibility to sow seed in cold conditions, allows growers to “sneak” in a crop of peas before planting summer crops like Zinnia, Celosia, Sunflowers, or Pumpkins.
All legume crops will benefit from inoculation , which means to dust or coat the seed with a corresponding bacteria prior to planting. This treatment will produce drastically greater rates of nitrogen fixation. It is well worth the small cost and small amount of effort.
Field peas can be combined with other cover crops, like winter rye, to create a mixed stand that will yield nitrogen, organic matter, and protect soils during seasons that are usually characterized by stormy weather and high rainfall. Planting along with winter rye adds the benefit of strong stems for the peas to climb up. This combined technique will increase overall yields for both species. Pea flowers are also useful for attracting beneficial insects, and using peas in the soil rotation for this reason is an important part of an integrated pest management plan. Like winter rye, field pea seeds can also be easily harvested to help create a #beyondorganic closed loop system.
Both winter rye and field peas are readily available in garden centers, agricultural supply stores, and from online vendors. Purchasing as local as possible is the best choice, not only because shipping costs are a factor, but also because buying local will help reduce the carbon footprint of your purchase.
Cover crops are a large subject, and my aim here has been to simply introduce some options and basic information regarding popular choices. I highly recommend the S.A.R.E. publication “Managing Cover Crops Profitably” which is a dedicated text that provides much more detailed and regionally focused information.
In an upcoming blog post, I’ll introduce a couple more workhorse cover crop varieties. Please allow me to urge you to give these and other cover crops a try! The benefits are substantial, and you will see increased yields, increased plant vigor, and increased quality for your following cash crops by preceding them with cover crops. These crops can easily be produced on the farm, and in short time, you will be able to avoid costly fertilizer purchases, which come with a great ecological impact on our ecosystem. This is one of many keys to creating an ecologically and economically viable production system for all size farms. The best knowledge is gained from experience, so go out there see what you can learn!
About the Author: Walt Krukowski started Mountain Flower Farm in 1998, and has been growing peonies on a hillside farm in Warren, VT ever since. Mountain Flower Farm specializes in shipping seasonal cut flowers and woody branches to discerning floral designers nationwide. The farm also produces peony root divisions and provides them at wholesale prices to growers throughout the USA. You can visit online: www.mountainflowerfarm.com