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Cover Cropping & Green Manures

After 22 years of farming, my farm’s soil is markedly more fertile and productive. It has been a wonderful journey learning what works and how to continue to improve long-term productivity while harvesting bountiful crops.

Flail mowing summer Sudangrass/cowpea green manure at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in Virginia.

There are several methods that deserve credit for this increase in soil quality: the use of compost, the use of a balanced mineral fertilizer and a serious commitment to cover cropping.

For this article I want to focus on the growing of cover crops and green manures. When I became the farm manager at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in 1992, I sought advice on how to transition the farm into organic production.

The land had been growing mostly sweet corn, pumpkins and green beans with commercial chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The soil was biologically inactive and nutrients were missing. I can clearly remember the words from a fertility consultant, “I can sell you something in a bag, and I can sell you something in a bucket, but what you really need to do is to make compost and grow cover crops.” And thus began my journey into both compost-making and cover cropping.

Why take on both of those jobs rather than just one? Well, they go hand in hand, each leveraging the benefits of the other to move a soil more quickly toward health and resilience.

Continue Reading →

Cover Crops on the Farm

Cover crops are increasingly being used by farmers across the country to suppress weeds, conserve soil, protect water quality and control pests and diseases.

A mix of rye, clover and vetch.

The fourth annual SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey, collected data from more than 2,000 growers from 48 states and the District of Columbia and provides insight into cover crop usage and benefits as well as farmer motivation for including cover crops as components in their farm management and soil health plans.

Responders reported a steady increase in the number of acres they have planted to cover crops over the past five years. They said the most important benefits of cover crops include: improved soil health, reduced erosion and compaction and increased soil organic matter. Other key benefits of using cover crops include: weed and insect control, provides a nitrogen source, attracts pollinators and provides deep taproots.

In the 2015-2016 survey, SARE and CTIC sought data on how farmers manage their fertilizer inputs as a result of their cover crop practices. Cover crop users were asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of fertilizer-related statements, using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The statement that got the highest level of agreement was, “Using cover crops has enabled me to reduce application of nitrogen on my cash crop,” with 134 of 1,012 respondents strongly agreeing and 244 checking “agree.” The statement that had the highest level of disagreement was “Using cover crops has required me to use additional crop fertility inputs over time to meet the needs of my cash crop.” Continue Reading →

The Soil Solution

The Soil Solutionby Graeme Sait

The UN has named 2015 International Year of Soils, and we should embrace this initiative with open hearts and willing hands. It is an incredibly timely focus in light of a series of serious challenges impacting our future and perhaps our very existence. Soil health directly affects plant, animal and human health. It also impacts topsoil erosion, water management and ocean pollution. Most importantly, it is now recognized that climate change is directly related to soil mismanagement. I believe a global soil health initiative can help save our planet.

The Top Five Threats

While in the UK, I met with a professor who shared some deeply concerning findings. He informed me that a recent survey of leading British scientists revealed that as many as one in five of the best thinkers in the country believe that we will be extinct as a species by the end of this century, or perhaps much earlier. This information should serve to spur meaningful action from every one of us. There are five core threats that need to be urgently addressed, and they all relate back to the soil. Continue Reading →

Interview: Forging a Better Path — Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb Embraces Shift from Conventional to Biological-Based Practices

Jonathan Cobb Interview

Jonathan Cobb

Jonathan Cobb interviewed by: Chris Walters


This month’s interview swings our focus away from storied veterans to a newcomer, a young farmer trying to forge his way in the middle of Texas. Like a lot of others who dedicate themselves to rational agriculture based in soil science, Jonathan Cobb left his family’s land for a while, getting an education outside the ag school monolith, getting married and trying out urban life before coming full circle back to the land in 2007. He encountered an event in recent Texas history that felt apocalyptic at the time and still strains belief — the summer of 2011. As the worst Texas drought in about a century kicked in with a vengeance, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for nearly three months, the land turned into brick and reservoirs dropped like a second-term president’s approval rating. As he relates, it forced a fresh look at all sorts of things. Along the way, a business Cobb ran with his wife, Jennifer Brasher, had to be folded, and he began a momentous transition away from row crops and into livestock. It also bears remembering that despite the influence wielded by the liberal enclave of Austin a mere hour away, rural Texas is not known for its open embrace of progressive ideas. For Jonathan’s refreshingly candid account of how he meets his challenges, read on.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell us about your neck of the woods near Rogers, Texas.

JONATHAN COBB. It’s Blackland prairie; really good, really rich, deep soils with a long history of farming there. My great-grandfather was a sharecropper since around 1900. My grandfather farmed it and then my Dad stayed. He was the youngest, and he stayed on the family farm. We were all gone when I decided to come back about eight years ago. I had been in Fort Worth doing landscape design and then came back and started farming. Continue Reading →

Cover Crops for Pest Management

sunflower.tifTwo small farmers in Florida are partnering with University of Florida Extension to determine how cover crops can be used to manage insect pests. In a newly funded Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education On-Farm Research Grant, “Establishing and Evaluating Selected Cover Crops on Small Farms to Increase the Impact of Beneficial Arthropods on Crop Pests,” strips of sunflower and buckwheat are being incorporated into crop fields to act as trap crops for pests and as attractants for beneficial predatory insects and pollinators.

Bradley Hoover, of Hoover Farms, owns 20 acres of about 50 different types of vegetables, all certified organically grown and sold in the wholesale market. In his field of tomatoes and peppers, Hoover, with the help of University of Florida Extension agents, has planted rows of sunflowers and buckwheat along the field perimeters, as well as additional rows of buckwheat in the center. The study compares the cover crops to the control (no cover crop plantings) to see where they fit into Integrated Pest Management practices.

The sunflowers attract stinkbugs, specifically the leaf-footed bug, which aggressively attacks tomatoes and peppers. The sunflower is acting as a trap crop, keeping the pest away from the farm’s cash crop. In addition, buckwheat attracts a wide array of beneficial insects, including native pollinators.

Scott and Billie Rooney, with Rooney’s Front Porch Farm, are looking at the same two cover crops, but evaluating their effectiveness in fruit production. Stinkbugs easily make a meal of their U-pick blackberry and blueberry plants.

“We are only in our first year of the study, but we are not seeing as many stinkbugs in the berries as we’ve had in the past,” said Billie Rooney.

Billie and her husband have already made some keen observations participating in the project. For example, she said that the sunflowers bordering the woodland contain more leaf-footed bugs than the sunflowers bordering their hair sheep grazing pasture.

The Rooneys are also interested in planting the winter small grain triticale in their grazing pastures. Triticale, it turns out, also acts as a trap crop for stinkbugs and will attract the early flights of stinkbugs before the sunflower crop is planted and ready.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Grasping the True Value of Cover Cropping

cover crop

Photo by USDA NRCS

Planting cover crops in rotation between cash crops is even more valuable than previously thought, according to a team of agronomists, entomologists, agroecologists, horticulturists and biogeochemists from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Research, published in Agricultural Systems, quantified the benefits offered by cover crops across more than 10 ecosystem services. Benefits included increased carbon and nitrogen in soils, erosion prevention, more mycorrhizal colonization and weed suppression. Researchers simulated a three-year, soybean-wheat-corn rotation with and without cover crops in central Pennsylvania, which presented agroecological conditions broadly representative of the Northeast and mid- Atlantic regions. The cover crop rotation included red clover, frost-seeded into winter wheat in March, and winter rye, planted after corn was harvested in the fall. The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used simulated management practices, including tillage, synthetic fertilizer use and mechanical weed control.

This report appears in the May 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.