How to Make Cover Crops Work for You

    February 16, 2022

    Cover crops are hailed by carbon farmers as one of the first and most influential changes a grower can make as they work toward better soil health and sustainability. 

    Ryan Stockwell, a Senior Manager with Indigo Ag and Wisconsin farmer, says, “We know there are a thousand ways to do this, and that creates all sorts of uncertainty and indecision for a lot of growers, especially those just starting out.”

    Addressing field issues

    One common myth that experts hear from growers who are new to using cover crops is that the covers are to blame for underlying compaction in your fields. But as Darrin Unruh, an Indigo Ag Agronomist and Kansas grower says, “The last thing I would blame is on the covers themselves because they’re really the mechanism to help us address that issue. We can address it biologically instead of putting some steel in the ground to rip it up and start all over again.”

    Growers also get concerned about covers when their fields remain wet. First time cover crop planters who experience a wet spring may wonder whether the covers are really working when it’s too wet to get into their fields. Steven Mirskey, a Research Ecologist with the USDA, says cover crops are effective at addressing wet conditions. The evidence? Mirskey says we should look at the growers who get those dry windows to get in the field because they’ve been utilizing covers. “Generally, a lot of the seasoned cover croppers, our experience is they’re often getting these windows where not only is it drying out, but the cover crops are accelerating that dry out, so that’s what gives them that window.”

    A need for patience

    All of the above is possible but only with a healthy dose of patience.Slow progress with covers is common and can be frustrating. “What I usually say to folks who are at the early front end of working with cover crops," Mirskey says, "is there’s a long period of time where it doesn’t start to take off.” Stockwell adds that we have to keep the idea of progress in perspective. “We have to keep in mind, the condition of that field didn’t get there overnight and let’s give the cover some time to do their job. They’re also not going to solve that underlying problem overnight,” he said.

    But, patience pays off. Cover crops help address soil health issues, underlying field issues, and they work to make your operation more weather resilient. But as Unruh points out, “Mother Nature has her own timeline. Sometimes we want instant gratification and it just doesn’t happen that way in nature. I know that I’m doing good with my covers, I know that I’m feeding that microbiome of the soil, I know that it’s doing good down there, I guess you just gotta have faith right?”

    The correct covers for you

    An important part of the equation that can’t be overlooked is selecting the right cover crops for your operation. There are a lot of variables that go into this decision. Because of that, Indigo and the USDA partnered to help simplify the process with the Cover Crop Recommendation Tool. This can be a great guide as you begin thinking about and incorporating cover crops on your farm.

    Find the best cover crops for your farm

    Of course, agronomists can also offer support and recommendations. To address compaction, Unruh said “In the fall, my go to is rape seed.” Mirskey added that “Anything that’s got a tap root is going to be more aggressive in breaking up hard compacted soil.” As for specific covers ahead of cash crops, both Unruh and Mirskey agreed that Hairy vetch would be a good choice ahead of corn. “We’ve got great performance from Hairy vetch and it’s incredibly diverse and dynamic,” Mirskey added. 

    No matter where you are in incorporating covers, experts agree continuing to find more information and connecting with others utilizing cover crops will help you be successful. 

    This content was edited from the webinar, "Profitability Strategies: How to Make Cover Crops Work for You" in August 2021. Watch it here.

    Interested in utilizing cover crops to help you get paid for sequestering carbon?

    Learn more