The 411 on Cover Crops
At the end of each growing season, after everything is harvested, we use a disk plow (see photo) to break up and incorporate what remains of the plants into the soil. A sort of multi-purpose cover crop is then sown into the soil. This cover crop is used to control rain and wind erosion when the cash crops aren’t growing.
The cover crop works to stabilize excess nutrients left in the soil instead of allowing them to be washed away in the subsequent rain and snow.
On our farm in Pennsylvania, we’re using hairy vetch and oats as a cover crop. The oats act as a “nurse crop” for the vetch, which means the oats grow faster than the vetch and shade out any weeds. After this nurse crop has done its job, it dies off in the winter cold which allows the vetch to grow quickly in the spring without any competition. The vetch is a legume and a unique quality of legumes is they are able to pull nitrogen out of the air and put it into the soil via nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria affix themselves to the roots of the vetch and this nitrogen fixing allows us to reduce the amount of fertilizer applied in the spring.
Cover crops also add organic matter (compost) to the soil when they are disked into the soil just prior to planting the cashcrop. This helps to maintain a healthy soil structure by reducing soil compaction. Compacted soil is a problem because plants need to have a lot of oxygen in their roots and when the soil becomes too compacted, the roots get less oxygen.
Cover crops are also aesthetically pleasing—on a cold winter’s day it feels good to see a green field!