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 tile systems.”

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.