More Digging Into The Benefits Of Cover Crops

Nebraska Notebook

When it comes to cover crops, I believe there are three categories of producers.

Published on: May 3, 2013

Cover crops, if you haven't heard, have been in the news a lot in recent months.

When it comes to cover crops, I believe there are three categories of producers: the true believers, those who are intrigued but want more information and the doubters who would rather continue their current traditional farming practices.

Members of the latter category could well be no-tillers and conservation-minded farmers, but some are not. You can see the evidence across Nebraska of native pastures converted to crops, piles of bulldozed trees and fields lacking in residue cover.

Regardless, emerging out in the country is the recognition of the concept of soil health, in which soil residues and cover crops combine to protect soil and to feed the thousands upon thousands of soil microorganisms beneath the surface. It will take time and education, but I believe the use of cover crops will continue to become more acceptable across Nebraska.

You could call it a jungle beneath the soil surface. Healthy soils harbor a huge population of mycorrhizal fungi, algae and protozoa, along with plant roots, nutrients, earthworms, insects and other critters.

The benefits of a no-till and cover crop combination include soil erosion protection, better soil structure, fixing nitrogen, higher organic matter, better water infiltration and carbon retention. But cover crops, particularly blends of them, do more—they feed the soil biological live and manage soil moisture. The idea is something green and growing during as much as the year as possible, says Paul Jasa, UNL Extension engineer.

Ray Ward and his staff at Ward Labs in Kearney are even developing a test to analyze soil samples for biologic health.

The bottom line is that a healthier soil will produce more.

I've visited with one group of crop and livestock producers just now forming in order to educate each other on how cover crops work. More and more cover crop meetings and field days sponsored by UNL Extension, farm groups and USDA are occurring across Nebraska.

It's not necessarily an easy learning curve, but farmers are asking more questions—what cover crop or blends do I plant, when do I plant, how is the cover crop terminated in the spring, and how does crop insurance work with them? Those discussions are a good first step in finding answers.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has made soil health one of its focus areas for its conservation incentive programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

An EPA "whoops"
The Nebraska Cattlemen has pressed the EPA for answers on the agency's release of personal data on livestock confinement operations to environmental groups. I blogged about the unfortunate release of personal information recently on our website, www.NebraskaFarmer.com. NC leaders discussed their concerns recently with EPA officials in Washington, D.C. However, Kristen Hassebrook, NC director of natural resources and environmental affairs, says they really didn't learn anything new.

"They didn't have much of a response, other than 'Whoops!'—which is disappointing," says Hassebrook.

She says her group is asking for an inquiry into protocols and procedures under the Freedom of Information Act. "Why were they not followed? How did this information get out in the first place if it wasn't supposed to? Those are the types of issues we'll be pursuing from here on out."

Hassebrook says the big issue in the release of the personal data is biosecurity. "The potential threats against our food supply is something of extreme concern at the federal level and for individual beef producers," she says, "and so that was our primary concern about creating a national database."