There are many benefits associated with the use of cover crops. They allow us to break down compaction, increase water holding capacity, create better soil structure, increase water and nutrient movement throughout the soil, reduce erosion, and many more.
Probably the first noticeable difference associated with use of cover crops, is improved soil structure. This will be noticed on many different levels, for starters equipment will begin to “float” across the soil better and leave minimal evidence of traveling across the surface. This is achieved by the soil being protected by crop residue blanketing the surface, providing a cushion between the tire and the soil. The crop residue helps displace the weight of the equipment over a larger surface area, and also compress under the weight before the soil particles are forced to compress together.
The crop residue on the surface can only take credit for part 1of the reduced compaction. The organic matter in the soil, provide buffers between the soil particles, allowing them to compress and then push back apart.
Organic matter is one of the essential items when it comes to soil health. OM contains many different things, from decaying plants and animals, to roots, microorganisms, and manure. OM is part of what allows us to increase the water and nutrient movement through our soils. OM is also a major food source for our microorganisms.
Microorganisms are what bring the soil to life. They can be accredited for decomposition of biomass and also for making more nutrients to be available to the plants. The thing we must realize about microorganisms is the fact that they are living species, which require food sources year round. In a standard cropping system, we only have live roots and plants a little over one third of the year, therefore forcing our microorganisms to live in a state of starvation or use the organic matter as their food source. When they are living in a state of starvation, they become dormant, and at that point are no longer doing their job. Through use of cover crops we are supplying active carbon almost year round, providing food for the microbes and not forcing them to devour the stored nutrients in the organic matter. It is difficult to build our organic matter content when we are forcing our microbes to use the OM as a food source until we have live plants and roots penetrating the soil again. Studies have shown that soil containing live roots have a substantially increased number of microbial activity when compared to tilled or soil not supporting live plants for most the year.
It is crucial that we monitor the health of our soil much like we would monitor the health of our livestock and pets. Our soils are home to thousands of species of organisms, there is such a great number of different species that science is still discovering new species and benefits each year. And just like any living organism they must be provided with food sources year round to ensure the proper health. Once our soils are restored back to a healthier state, we will see the positive response in the health of our crops and also our yields. We can only go so far by adding supplements to the soil to temporarily fix a problem, eventually we must address the real issues our soils are facing and strive to get things back into balance. Once this is done our yield goals of 300 bushel corn and 100 bushel soybeans will be easier obtainable.