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07. CONCLUSIONThe concept of covering fallow land with vegetation to reduce erosion and provide biological and structural improvements to the soil has been practiced for centuries. There is evidence that it was used in ancient China and India to enhance their crops;  the Romans used it in their vineyards. And, we have heard from youth that Native Americans planted diverse plants together in a form of intercropping of plants which benefited each, calling it “Three Sisters” in which corn, edible beans, and squash were planted together; this process, while not cover cropping per se, made use of the characteristics of each variety coincidentally. 

Cover cropping was used and recommended by George Washington and other early commercial farmers who planted clover, grass, and buckwheat in fallow years1; the process was employed by agriculture worldwide until the early 1900s, when industrial chemicals for fertilizing,  weed, and pest control (herbicides & pesticides) became broadly available and economically practical. 

Unfortunately, this broad application of synthetic compounds intensely stresses the soil’s ability to retain moisture and beneficial organisms. It then became uncommon for farmers to cover their soil in the winter with an unsaleable crop, arguably being one of the triggers of the devastating “dust bowl” in the midwest during the 1930s when millions of acres of land lost topsoil to wind and subsequent storm. There are many reasons to plant crops to cover bare land after a cash crop has matured: 

This is a prodigious list. These facts have been shown in practical applications, both recently and through the ages. For the commercial farmer, the real-world return in both near-term profit and durable revenues with sunk cost investment returns over time are the principal concerns. Farming is a financially risky business and now that several generations of practitioners have grown to understand how to reduce their risks by using commercially available chemicals, there is an antipathy among the community to change their practices. 

Later on, we will address some concerns about making the transition to this environmentally friendly method. As with most initiatives, there is good news and slightly less than good news:

While economic profit or loss can be highly variable upon initial use of cover crops – typically 1 to 3 years – the long-term value in land protection and permanent improvement has been shown to be indisputable. 

Reducing financial risk for the farmer through soil stabilization and content predictability relative to weather effects is a major consequence of cover crop utilization. Typically, cover crops are not fallow period cash crops grown for income. They are employed for the specific purpose that they can add to the soil improvement and protection process. Each species used in this application provides one or more complementary factors. The five general categories used worldwide are:  

The table immediately below shows some of the beneficial and growing characteristics of typical cover crop species. This can be used as a general guide for planning a cover crop; it is recommended that the local agricultural agency be contacted as to the selection of specific species once you have identified your objectives and selected possible species. Mixes of species and varieties are also commonly used to optimize results – at least four (4) is the typical recommendation  – and mixing is highly recommended; your objectives and local conditions may dictate how the mix should be formulated. This generic table, drawn from a variety of sources, can provide insight into possible applications of the different types of plants for a cover crop. 

The following table gives some general guidance on generic issues such as seeding conditions and methods, soil conditions, some pest resistance, and recommended uses when differing representative cash crops are planned. Again, your local agricultural agent and common local experience in cover crops should be consulted to optimize your choices. 

There are many decisions in the process of optimizing your cover crop selection. The practical issues of equipment availability and configuration, seeding schedules, methods of cover crop, termination scheduling before the next season’s cash crop,  interactions among plants and plant types, and of course cost and resources, in general, all need to be considered. The growth requirements characteristics of the component cover crop are also important. And assuming it is a multiple variety seeding care must be taken to assess its potential impact on the following cash crop. There is the possibility of a  negative allelopathic reaction among the plants, while there may also be a positive one if a logical mix is created. The following table summarizes some soil requirements, candidate seeding amounts, and possible interactions with a successor crop. 

These are common but not the ONLY ones used for cover crops. More varieties can be found in the USDA Library: List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification  | Alternative Farming Systems Information Center| NAL | USDAThe United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has some general guidance: 

“When choosing a cover crop, a farmer might consider a variety of factors, including the cost of the seed, the intended use (e.g., cover only, grazed, or harvested for forage), and how the cover crop fits into the cash crop rotation and anticipated planting and harvest dates, and long-term management goals (e.g., to prevent soil erosion or to improve soil organic matter). Soil and climate, as well as the availability of financial assistance, are also important factors.” 

In 2017, approximately one-third of U.S. acres that planted cover crops received a financial incentive payment from either a USDA working lands conservation program or a similar State program. References to those programs are provided below.So, what really are those benefits that were listed earlier? And why might they matter to improve a farming practice? The following is a description of each benefit listed above; there may be other benefits depending on the specific utilization circumstances.

Farmers often share their experience and knowledge with their farming colleagues. Some ideas, skills, and practice for  cover crops and the employment paths they succeeded at follow:    

🌎 Farmers often get the advice that they should “start small” when it comes to conservation practices. But Indiana farmer Rick Clark of Clark Land and Cattle is proof that you can do regenerative agriculture at scale. He raises no-till soybeans, and no-till corn, and has had great success planting cover crops on his  7,000-acre farm. What’s more, this is the first year that all his acres will be grown without chemicals as he transitions to organic. He recently recounted his experiences at “One Good Idea” ( where he disclosed his cover crop secrets to a massive cost savings of $670,000 a year. 

🌎 Brad Lauber of Lauber Seed Farms, which operates regeneratively, hosts a  YouTube series of their experiences and success at cover crops. They try  different practices yearly to optimize the regeneration and yields from their seed corn planting. A typical episode on cover crops is here: Cover crops, 2  different strategies. What should I do now? – YouTube . He expects his seed corn to produce 270-280 bushels per acre using regenerative practices. 

🌎 Since 2006, Matt Griggs and his family at Griggs Farms, LLC has integrated  wheat, rye, cover crops, and manure into the farming operation, focusing on high-yield sustainable practices that heal the soil and protect the environment. Check out his YouTube episode on cover crops: Cover Crops and Soil Health!! 5/14/22 – YouTube

🌎 Despite being the resurgence of a process proven by centuries of agriculture, cover crops are still not broadly utilized today in the commercial farming industry. The United  States Department of  Agriculture (USDA) which is an advocate for cover crops conducts routine research into the adaptation of various practices. Here, the rate of increase in cover crop agriculture is increasing,  but it remains in the 10-15%  range of the USDA surveyed fields. The antipathy generated by years of commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has entrenched the community in mid-20th century practices. The marginal increase in usage makes for restrained optimism about changing to more environmentally sound methods for maintaining soil health and gaining the benefits of more natural and enduring productive farming methods. As with all transitions, there are several approaches and strategies which can be considered. If government financial assistance is utilized, some limitations or criteria may be invoked to qualify.  

“If you want cover crops to work, they will work for you,” says Myron Sylling, a  southeastern Minnesota corn and soybean producer who farms with his brother  Mikal near the Iowa border. “But you can’t just try something. If you do, it probably won’t work.” 

He notes that negative stories often include glaring examples of doing things the wrong way, such as planting the wrong species after harvest. 

“We don’t want anyone to make that kind of mistake,” he says. “It’s why we share the mistakes we’ve made and the problems we’ve encountered. Cover crops will work if  you are willing to adapt.” There are government programs that help to save costs by using these conservation program funding where possible. As noted above, initiating the use of  cover crops requires a period of education and front-loaded costs; these programs,  at the Federal, State, and, sometimes County and 

Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) levels, assist farmers to transition with lower financial risk. Federal programs are available in all states. Some of the programs include: 


The USDA programs tend to be fixed cost-share and each state has been assigned  standard rates for individual species and multiple species cover crops 

Example State Specific: 

State Cost Share, and watershed-specific assistance programs, for example in Maryland:

Dark Green: —– State sponsored/funded program
Green: ———— New or emerging State program
Light Green:—– Only administration of Federal (USDA) programs  

While these programs usually are cost-share and don’t fully cover the costs of  implementing a cover crop, they help farmers in the implementation phase as they are finding what works best on their farm and as they start to experience the soil health benefits of this practice. Pending legislation in several states will either enhance or initiate support for cover crops. 1. Share the idea! Contact your local agricultural agents – Federal, State, and Local. Contact your seed and equipment suppliers. Collaborate with other cover crop experienced farmers in your area. 

(If there are none, then the governmental agency operatives should be able to help or contact Kiss The Ground. Take a look at the various YouTube and other media that experienced farmers have produced on cover crops.)

2. Review your crop planning, including the years before this and the upcoming ones. Some practitioners have used a cover crop as a ‘bonus’ cash crop; however, the incentive programs typically encourage mixed variety cover crops. 

3. Create a plan for, optimally, a mixed cover crop that can be integrated into whichever other practices you follow on your land. Plan for any equipment requirements and develop the mechanical strategies which make sense for your application. Review possible double uses for equipment, such as modifying your seeder to include vertical tilling. Consider transitioning your tractor fleet to lighter equipment and turf-like or floatable tires to reduce compaction. Consider the adaptation of drone technology to reduce equipment time on the field. 

4. You probably keep detailed records of your farming activities. Add cover crops into those records so that you will be able to correlate the effects on your other activities. Share your successes and learning with others. As with all transitions, there are several approaches and strategies which can be considered. If government financial assistance is utilized, some limitations or criteria may be invoked to qualify. 

A potentially major issue, raised above in the Risk Section, is how the cover crop is killed prior to seeding the following cash crop. This can be problematic when the environmental sound “No-Till” practice is employed. As with most farming, there are several ways to accomplish the cover crop kill, some of which are environmentally undesirable – chemical herbicides. The preferred methods are mechanical, meaning some added work. Some methods do not work well with cover crops with a relatively tall growth habit, such as grasses. And it has been established that, for a cover crop area to be made suitable for the following crop, the kill should be close to 100%.  Some strategies are only about 80% effective on their own (e.g., roller crimping), but they can be supplemented, adding work. However, strategies to accomplish multiple objectives on one pass have also been developed and one such strategy is shown in the picture below. 

The overall strategies are: 

Cover crops are one element of a comprehensive effort to regenerate farmland. Kiss The Ground is a 501(c)3 that provides information & inspiration – through media, policy, education, and policy – to farmers, government officials, and the general public on regenerative practices. 

Together, we can do this! References:

Bergtold, J., Ramsey, S., Maddy, L., & Williams, J. (2019). A review of economic considerations for cover  crops as a conservation practice. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 34(1), 62-76.  doi:10.1017/S1742170517000278 

Groff, S. (2015). The past, present, and future of the cover crop industry. Journal of Soil and Water  Conservation, 70 (6) 130A-133A; DOI: 

Munyon JW, Bheemanahalli R, Walne CH, Raja Reddy K. (2021) Developing functional relationships  between temperature and cover crop species vegetative growth and development. Agronomy Journal. 2021;113:1−16. 

Myers, R. (2019). Cover Crop Programs and Incentives Landscape Assessment (pp. 1–18). AGree,  Economic + Environmental Risk Coalition 

Wallander, S., Smith, D, Bowman, G., Classen, R. (2021) Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in  the United States, USDA Economic Research Service, February. 

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