Cover crops improve soil quality
Soil is a living ecosystem and when properly managed supports much of our life’s activities and most basic needs.
Soil is a place where energy and matter are captured, transformed by plants, animals, and microbes into nutrients that nourish and support plant growth. Improving soil quality increases the capacity of a soil to carry out these vital functions. Soils are composed of both living and non-living components. The non-living components include mineral matter (sand, silt, and clay), water, air and organic matter. The living components include plant roots, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms and much more. These combined make up the physical, biological, and chemical properties of soil. Each plays a vital role in soil ecology. Management options to increase soil quality include crop rotations, conservation tillage and cover crops.
Cover crops protect the soil surface from rain and wind and reduce surface runoff. Nutrient efficiency increases when these covers scavenge residual nitrogen and release it for the following crop. Soil organic carbon can be greatly increased from the additional biomass added to the system. Both nitrogen and carbon are needed to form soil organic matter (SOM). SOM contains large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur, which becomes available for the next crop as decomposition occurs. Increasing SOM improves the aeration of soils, increases the water-holding capacity, and contributes to aggregate stability of soils by supplying food for the microorganisms. These soil organisms produce chemicals such as (Glomalin) that hold soil particles together. Glomalin acts like glue to cement micro-aggregates together to form macro-aggregates and improve soil structure.
Farmers using cover crops can improve soil quality, prevent erosion, reduce nutrient leaching, sequester carbon, suppress weeds, and improve pest management. Water quality is improved by reducing losses of nutrients, pesticides and sediment. For additional information on cover crops visit the Midwest Cover Crop Council at www.mccc.msu.edu.