Comparing cover crops to a fall activity like football may shine some light on the importance of protecting our soils.  

The game of football requires some key elements to be successful and safe, such as a ball, field, shoulder pads and most importantly a helmet to protect the players from unexpected impacts.  Imagine driving your son or daughter to a football game and just before arriving they say they forgot their helmet. 

Would you say, “That’s okay, I don’t think you’ll need it‘? Helmets are like our cover crops and leftover crop residue, we shouldn’t get by without using them.

Cover crops are planted in open areas to serve as armor for our soils from hard rains, strong winds and blistering sun. Most fields consist of one of the two types of armor called active or passive armor. Most fields may already have some passive armor called crop residue that remains from the previously harvested crop. Another form of armor for our soil is active soil armor. The active armor or growing cover crops provides food sources for soil biological organisms, wildlife (deer) and protects our fields and gardens from extreme weather.

Any open area of soil can be used to plant cover crops. For example, gardens, food plots, cash crop fields and open tilled areas can take advantage of this active armor. Most people in our rural area have gardens that could be planted or over seeded to rye or clovers to provide an armor during the off season. In larger farming operations, efficiencies on how to plant and soil conditions during the planting window play a major role in getting the cover crops planted. 

Jim Williams, is a District Conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS). He has seen many fields in his journeys throughout his coverage area. Jim serves Missaukee and Wexford Counties and assists landowners in the use of cover crops as an active soil armor. Jim said, “Throughout my service area I have seen producers wanting to plant different types of cover crops. Some producers have taken advantage of USDA-NRCS funds to experiment with different cover crops types and seeding methods.‘

Greg White, District Conservationist with USDA-NRCS servicing Osceola and Lake counties, states, “Cover crops are needed on all fields, not just for the fields that are prone to erosion.  Cover crops not only serve as an active armor they build soils organic matter to increase water holding capacity. They also can reduce compaction and increase water infiltration.‘

Local farms are also trying to prove to themselves that cover crops will work in fields they farm.  MSU Extension in collaboration with Missaukee Conservation District’s CTAI Soil Conservationist Jeff Fewless and Jim Williams USDA-NRCS participated in a planting trial of three different types and varieties of cover crops on Fenner Farms, Inc. fields. The test plot was planted to ensure inter seeding cover crops into standing corn will work for the area farms. 

Christina Curell, an MSU extension educator on Cover Crops and Soil Health, says, “PhD student Aaron Brooker and his advisors Karen Renner and Christy Sprague, professors in Michigan State University’s Department of Plant, Soils and Microbial Sciences, have been conducting research on inter seeding cover crops into corn between the V1 and V7 growth stages. They tested three different cover crops in corn — annual rye, tillage radish and crimson clover — and a mixture of all three. They also tested tolerance of cover crops to a variety of herbicides.‘ Their research was conducted over four years at multiple locations across the state, including on-farm research to scale up the work done in experimental plots. They found that using cover crops did not reduce corn yield if they were planted after the V1 growth stage and weeds were controlled.

Many different methods can be used to incorporate active armor or cover crops to your soils profile. In garden situations, hand broadcasting may be a practical method, although in large acre farming operations, aerial broadcasting or using specialized implements may work best. All in all, let’s keep our helmets on, chins up and soils in the game. Good luck this season!

 Jeff is the Conservation Technical Assistance Initiative (CTAI)Technician for Missaukee Conservation District and based in Wexford County. You can contact him at 231-775-7681 ext. 3 or jeff.fewless@mi.nacdnet.net.