GREENSBURG, Ind. — Planting cover crops on fields during
winter months can benefit soil health and conserve resources, according to a
specialist at the Decatur County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Cover crops, such as rye grasses, can improve a variety of
factors such as erosion, nitrogen fixation and water infiltration.
“The No. 1 thing is resource conservation,” said Scott
Sanders, natural resource specialist for the Decatur County SWCD. “Like last
year, we had a lot of nitrogen in the fields, so we wanted mixes that did a good
job holding on to nitrogen.
“Other folks are looking at reducing surface soil erosion.
Cover crops can do that, too. Some people that have problems with weeds can also
use cover crops. If you have compaction issues, cover crops such as tillage
radishes and annual rye grasses with deep, deep rooting systems can help break
up compaction and build up organic matter.”
Sanders also noted that cover crops can help improve soil
structure and facilitate water infiltration. All of the benefits combined lead
to better soil health.
“Cover crops have tons of tremendous benefits,” Sanders
said. “Soil health is one those big things, building organic matter — we try to
tie all this into a conservation farming system. It’s a combination in no-till,
cover crops and nutrient management.
“Nutrient management is applying chemicals, herbicides and
nutrients using the most modern technology. Farmers do soil sampling. That way,
they can use specific amount of nutrients needed for that area of the field.
Some parts of the field may require more or less than others. All those things
help water quality and the environment.”
Sanders said that a no-till system is important to consider
in conservation farming. After tillage, the heavy equipment can make the topsoil
very fine, easily blown away by gusts of wind. He mentioned that hard rains on
tilled soil can lead to erosion problems, as well.
“We want guys to try conservation cropping systems,” he
said. “Leave less of a footprint on the environment. Cover crops have tremendous
benefits for clean water. It’s a reduction in cost to the farmer — there’s no
sense in putting on more than what they need.
“We’ve been doing trials with nitrogen. Most people in
Indiana apply anhydrous ammonia or other forms of it. Cover crops help build
nitrogen in the soil, especially legumes. They can also sequester it. The rye
grasses, if you apply and don’t use it all, can trap it in the soil and keep it
from running off.”
Lisa Holscher, soil health program manager for the
Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, agreed with Sanders about the benefits
of cover crops.
“Soils both drain better and hold water better,” she said.
“I know it sounds like it can’t be, but it works. It improves functioning of
Holscher recommended using online tools that walk through
the concerns farmers have and pick out what cover crop will best address each
specific need. She suggested going to www.mccc.msu.edu.
For more information on CCSI and to find workshops being
held this year, visit www.ccsin.org.