James Pinsky: Cover crops: Invest in your soil

James Pinsky

The key to having healthy soil is rather simple. You have to invest in it year-around.

Think of soil a lot like a relationship. You’ll get out of both what you put into them. Just as any relationship must be nurtured, soil must be cared for too.

The good news is soil doesn’t need a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, but coincidentally flowers are a universal tool for any relationship – especially soil. You see, one of the most neglected times of a soil’s lifecycle is after farmers have harvested their primary crops in the fall. Oftentimes, soil is left barren with no crops to grow, and is left exposed in the fall all the way until spring planting season. Imagine if you ignored your relationship from September until April? Come spring you’d have to do quite a bit of work to get your relationship back to where it was, if that’s even an option. Keeping your soil healthy can prove just as daunting a task.

One way to help avoid an awkward spring time moment with your soil is to use a cover crop in the fall. By helping your soil stay engaged with meaningful top cover, you’ll do a lot more than paint a greener image for off-season viewers, you’ll cut fertilizer costs, reduce the need for herbicides and other pesticides, improve yields by enhancing soil health, prevent soil erosion, conserve soil moisture, and of course protect water quality.

Like I said, using cover crops can be quite beneficial, and one type of cover crop to use is known as a legume. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one of the main reasons for selecting legumes as cover crops is their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to the soil. The USDA said legumes that produce a substantial amount of growth, such as hairy vetch and crimson clover, may supply more than 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the next crop, and legumes such as field peas, bigflower vetch, and red clover usually supply only 30 to 80 pounds of available nitrogen.  The federal agency also said legumes provide other benefits, including attracting beneficial insects, helping control erosion, and adding organic matter to soils.

Cover crops also help fend off weeds by crowding out unwelcome plant growth, and the leaves of some cover crops help provide shade and wind cover for the soil which can significantly reduce soil erosion from wind and rain, or runoff. While we here at the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District are fans of all of the benefits of cover crops, we are especially fond of its impact on nonpoint source pollution. Cover crops, by slowing erosion and runoff, reduce nonpoint source pollution caused by sediments, nutrients and agricultural chemicals. In fact, we’re such big fans of using cover crops that we have two programs, one for harvestable and one for non-harvestable cover crops which can give landowners tax credit for using them.

Using cover crops does a lot to help nurture your relationship with soil. It serves as a year-around commitment to keeping your soil healthy and in return for your investment many farmers are rewarded with cost savings in the spring and greater yields. On top of that, we here at the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water District can help you receive tax credit as well. Want to know more? Give us a call at 540-465-2424 ext 5.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Contact him at 540-465-2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org. Visit us at www.lfswcd.org or follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/lfswcd.