By now you have probably heard the term cover cropping. However, what exactly is cover cropping and why is it beneficial to the environment? That surely is why cover cropping is part of the climate smart initiatives right? Cover cropping has been a practice that has been around as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times. These systems were installed to aid in improving soil fertility for crops being grown by these ancient farmers. So, cover cropping is not new? Well, no, cover cropping finds news means to be relevant to the issues of the time. So why is cover cropping becoming the new buzz trend if we knew about all these things before? Well to put it plainly, we have found that cover cropping can have the potential to impact the climate, by sequestering carbon, cycling carbon dioxide to oxygen, and other benefits show the potential to have a net impact on climate change.
However, just what does cover cropping systems do for farms, ranchers, and landowners? An important distinction is that cover crops are plants grown specifically to protect and enrich the soil, rather than for harvest. These plants typically have no economic benefit, meaning they do not produce a harvestable commodity. So, cotton, peanuts, corn, etc. are types of agricultural planting that have food or fiber return. So, they are not cover crops, because they have a harvestable product. Most common cover crops are legumes and grasses that produce lots of leafy green surface area. These cover corps are picked especially for their environmental value because their value is in what they can do for the environment.
Cover crops is their ability to help improve soil health by preventing erosion, increasing organic matter content, and reducing compaction. Roots anchor down the soil, and well as keep it from compressing together. This leads to better soil structure, improved water retention, and increased nutrient availability for plants. Cover crops can help to suppress weed growth by outcompeting them for resources, shading them out, or releasing chemicals that inhibit their growth. Cover crops can scavenge nutrients that would otherwise be lost to leaching, and can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants in the soil. Cover crops can provide habitat for beneficial insects that help to control pests and can also help to reduce pest pressure by disrupting their life cycles or making it more difficult for them to find suitable hosts. Cover crops can help to mitigate the impacts of climate change by improving soil health and increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, which can sequester carbon.
Overall, cover crops have found a new value to current societal needs of the times. Just like in ancient times, we are looking at these little plants to have an impact on our world greater than their size. In recent years, the use of cover crops has gained renewed interest due to their ability to improve soil health, reduce input costs, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is why we work with landowners across Gadsden County to implement these cover cropping strategies. We currently partner with the Gadsden Soil and Water Board to rent low-cost use of grain drills to give landowners the chance to implement cover crops in a no-till method. We also work with landowners and the USDA NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) Office in Quincy and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Office of Ag Water Policy for cost share programs to help landowners implement cover cropping systems. For more information, contact the Gadsden County Extension Office at 850-875-7255. You can also join us for the Emerging Farmers Symposium on May 3rd and 4th at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center, where we will be talking more on these topics. You can also stay up to date by following us on Facebook at UF IFAS Extension Gadsden County!
Robbie Jones is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent/County Extension Director for UF/IFAS Extension Gadsden County.