Cover crops are fundamental, sustainable tools used to manage soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds (unwanted plants that limit crop production potential), pests (unwanted animals, usually insects, that limit crop production potential), diseases, and diversity and wildlife, in agro-ecosystems.
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Soil Nutrient Cycling
Understanding the role of cover crops in soil nutrient cycles is key to realizing the benefits of cover cropping in agriculture. While conventional non-cover cropping methods allow for denitrification, or conversion of available soil nitrogen to atmospheric nitrogen, cover crops utilize and bind up nitrogen applied from previous crops, and draw in nitrogen from soil microbes making it available for your next crop. This means that you are able to reduce nitrogen inputs, which means reducing your costs.
Nitrogen is a key component in these systems, however this same interaction is seen with organic carbon, potassium, and many micro nutrients.
Suppressing Soil Pests and Weeds
Cover crops decrease soil disturbance, and keep the soil biotic system in balance. Soil microbial systems are healthy when they are given consistent sources of nutrients and organic matter, as opposed to dramatic annual additions and subtractions. By cover cropping you allow your soil microbial community to become balanced, which intern reduces your need to apply fungicides and insecticides.
Another major benefit of cover cropping is creating an effective mulch layer that prevents weeds from growing. For this reason alone cover cropping can be an appealing option.
Soil Run-off and Water Quality
The vegetative layer formed by a cover crop decreases the soil disturbance caused by rain on the soil surface, allowing soil to retain its structure. This reduces soil erosion and runoff by increases water infiltration deep into the soil.
When we reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff we see reduced transport of valuable nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, as well as harmful pathogens from farmland, preventing the degradation of our streams, rivers and lakes. Cover cropping keeps beneficial nutrients and top soil on your farm and out of our water.
Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing: Managing Soil Health for Sustainable Agriculture
Reduced Chemical Demands
There are many reasons for cover cropping, from increasing soil fertility, to preserving your tops soils, and reducing pollution of streams, but often we have to look first at the bottom line, is this an economically viable option? The answer is yes! Due to the cheap costs of cover crops, the combined benefits of reduced of fertilizer, herbicide, fungicide, and pesticides needs outweigh the costs of planting cover crops. Cover crops can be seen as an investment in the fertility of your land, at first the benefits may seem minor, but they compound over time, leaving you with beautiful and fertile soil.