Why Cover Crops are the Way to a Better Future

Alon Katz
February 16, 2022

Happy National Almond Day!

In honor of National Almond Day (February 16th), I want to shine a spotlight on an area where almond farmers are leading the way:  cover crops. Almond farmers have partnered with agricultural institutions to engage in extensive research and experimentation, demonstrating that cover crops can strengthen the agricultural ecosystem, from nurturing the bees to nourishing the soil.

While cover crops aren't a quick fix, they provide long-term solutions for growing healthier plants and better quality produce. According to UC Davis scientists, “there are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on earth.” So it makes sense that developing healthy soil demands several years of careful planning and monitoring.

Time to go back to our roots

Let's recall that cover crops aren't a newfangled concept. Ancient writings describe their use and they were popular as recently as the early 1900s when U.S. farmers planted cover crops to protect the soil from disease and pests in between planting seasons. Cover crops served as supplementary plants - non-cash crops that preserved and nurtured the soil.

With the rise of chemical pesticides in the 1950s, farmers reduced their cover crop usage. Yet recently, scientists have been unearthing evidence of cover crops' environmental, economic, and ecological benefits for organic and non-organic farming.  

Why cover crops?

Soil nurtures plants, and plants nourish people. So to support our health, we need to start at the source-- our soil.

Cover crops provide a natural way to cultivate the soil by:

  • Increasing soil biomass
  • Preserving soil nutrients
  • Improving soil structure and fertility
  • Boosting water capacity
  • Reducing erosion and runoff
  • Inhibiting pest outbreaks, disease, and weed growth

We can look to citrus farmers in Florida to better understand the benefits of cover cropping. To reduce huanglongbing (HLB), a disease that decimated 90% of Florida citrus fields, farmers decided to plant cover crops. And they saw promising results.

Over the years, the cover crops improved the soil biomass and water retention while attracting beneficial insects and limiting damaging pests. Though the cover crops didn’t offer immediate payoffs, these helper plants enriched the soil, ultimately contributing to increased yield and yield consistency.

Using the appropriate mixture of cover crops can also reduce costs. A study from the Journal of Environmental Management on the cost-benefit analysis of winter cover cropping shows that after six years of cover cropping, almond farmers saved $290.12 in fertilizer costs and $60.56 in herbicide costs per acre. That’s an estimated 5 - 30% savings in fertilizer and herbicides.

Tough decisions

Deciding to use cover crops is not an easy choice to make. We each have to weigh the pros and cons of cover cropping for our unique farming situations.

As an agronomist and field scout at SeeTree, I understand why farmers may be hesitant to incorporate cover cropping. Like any endeavor, cover cropping can go awry. Sometimes cover cropping can lead to an overpopulation of soil insects or pest infestations in cash crops. Or perhaps the planning, integration, and maintenance involved are expensive and impractical for you at your current stage.

Using tech to ease the process

When I was growing up in Israel on a “kibbutz”- an agricultural community - our farmers didn't have the technology that we have now. Today's advanced ag-tech tools can help farmers answer common cover cropping issues such as:

What should be the size of the initial test area? At what seeding rate should I plant the cover crops? When should I terminate a cover crop?

Today, technology enables intelligent in-field scouting and customized guidance based on the farmer's specific agronomic area. The SeeTree app, for example, includes a real-time map of each field and features a “weed report” function that alerts farmers when segments of the cover crops need mowing. This close monitoring can increase the cover crops’ effectiveness, resulting in better soil, healthier cash crops, and reduced scouting costs, water usage, and pesticide use.

Appreciating the importance of cover cropping

Maybe you want to adopt cover cropping now. Or maybe you're hoping to start it in the future. Or, perhaps you feel cover cropping isn't for you.

We can all recognize though, that farmers in earlier generations benefited from cover cropping, so perhaps we can too. Now, we have the chance to return to these sustainable farming practices, equipped with ag-tech tools and an understanding of the long-term benefits of cover cropping- for our soil, our agriculture, our health, and our environment.

Alon Katz - Agronomist & Field Scouting

Useful Resources: Cover Crop Profitability Calculator, Best Management Practices

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