The Value of Winter Cover Crops

— Written By and last updated by Patricia Burch

With much of the area receiving little to no rainfall since Hurricane Dorian brushed us in early September, many farmers have delayed planting their winter cover crops to prevent poor germination due to drought conditions. Now that we are beginning to see rainfall more prevalent in the forecast for our area, growers will be planting their cover crops as quick as they remove the last remaining summer crops out of their fields.

Winter cover crops have been planted for many years in rotation with summer crops grown in Sampson County, often to be harvested as a second source of income before the next summer crop is planted. However, we are continuously finding new benefits these cover crops provide aside from income. A major benefit from cover crops is erosion control. When a field is left bare without a cover crop, the lack of root structure to hold the soil in place during rainfall or windy days that we often experience from late fall to early spring creates a great opportunity for soil erosion to take place. It can take up to 500 years for 1 inch of “new” soil to form, yet it can be lost in a matter of seconds due to erosion. The root structure provided by a cover crop provides preventative measures by holding soil in place.

Other major benefits that cover crops provide include excess nutrient retention, absorbing nutrients that were applied to the summer crop before and preserving them for the next summer crop. Not only does this provide an economical advantage for farmers, it also prevents excess nutrients from entering our water systems and causing damage to the environment. Cover crops are great at improving soil organic matter content, increasing beneficial soil organism activity, and retaining moisture as well.

Those that are familiar with the use of cover crops know that small grain crops such as rye, wheat, and oats are most often used in cover crop rotations in our area. However, there are many legumes that can be used including varieties of vetch, clover, or even winter peas. Legumes actually produce their own nitrogen that will be made available for the summer crop that follows the legume cover crop. This advantage can be very economically appealing to many growers because it will help them cut fertilizer input costs.

Cover crops are an essential part of the agriculture industry here in Sampson County. Without the benefits they provide, we would gradually lose vital soil health factors that allow our crops to thrive. During your travels within the county, you will likely notice many green fields that are thriving, even in the middle of winter. Remember that these are not winter weeds that have emerged, but rather crops that farmers have put into their rotation not only for their benefit, but to improve the health of the soil as well as the environment we all live in.