Benefits of Cover Crops
As you drive across the State of Indiana in the dead of winter, you might ask yourself “why are all of these fields so green?” Those green fields are cover crops. Cover crops are grasses, legumes or small grains grown between regular grain crop production periods for the purpose of protecting and improving the soil. They increase organic matter in the soil, improve soil health, increase water filtration into the soil, filter runoff and serve as natural fertilizers in some cases. Cover crops also increase the soil’s water holding capacity which is a great benefit in droughty years. The most common cover crops in Indiana are fall-seeded cereals such as rye or wheat, and fall seeded annual ryegrass.
Farmers in Indiana planted an all-time record 1.5-million acres of overwinter cover crops in 2020. A survey conducted by the Indiana Conservation Partnership determined cover crops prevented 4.1 million pounds of nitrogen, 2 million pounds of phosphorus and 1.6 million tons of sediment from entering waterways in the Hoosier state this year. That's enough sediment to fill an estimated 453 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to the Indiana Department of Agriculture.
In addition to incorporating cover crops, no-till practices have helped improve the sustainability and productivity of the soils, and also benefited Indiana wildlife by providing winter food sources and habitat.
Michael Munchel, who farms near Cambridge City in east-central Indiana, said the cover crops he planted are paying big dividends to his operation.
“I farm some droughty, river ground and the cover crops I plant have helped increase the water holding capacity and, as a result, I have seen an increase in my yields.” “And on some of my other ground I have been able to reduce by herbicide rates.”
“They also benefit our Whitetail deer population by providing food all winter long. I’ve seen more Whitetail deer and Quail on my farm in in the last two-years than I have in the past ten, and I honestly believe that is a direct result of planting cover crops. It provides them additional food sources other than just corn and soybeans.”
Cover crops benefit the environment but they also put more money back in the producer’s pocket by reducing herbicide applications, increasing yields, and in Indiana’s Upper West Fork White River region of counties it has reduced crop insurance premiums. For the second year in a row, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, The Nature Conservancy, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency have joined forces to improvement the Cover Crop Premium Discount Program. Farmers who plant cover crops on owned or rented acres will receive a five-dollar per acre crop insurance premium.
So as you continue your drive across the State of Indiana, just know that Hoosier farmers are going above and beyond more so than ever to promote soil health, benefit wildlife and environmental sustainability while at the same time increasing their profitability.