Mother Nature wants her ground covered, not bare. Whether it’s trees, weeds, grasses or wildflowers, if left alone, the soil will sprout some type of cover. We can reap additional rewards by using the advantages of cover cropping to boost the benefits of ground cover in a variety of ways. While cover crops are often used in farming to improve the soil, they also can improve wildlife habitat and forage.
What are cover crops?
Cover crops include types of grasses, legumes or small grains grown for protecting and improving the soil. Plants used for cover cropping create needed plant nutrients, make existing nutrients more readily available, add organic matter back into the soil, reduce soil compaction and increase water absorption. These crops filter water, suppress weeds, prevent erosion, and add temporary forage and cover for wildlife and pollinators, making them a beneficial part of a habitat improvement plan.
Farmers and gardeners have used cover crops for centuries. As the prevalence of commercial fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals has increased over the last several decades, the use of cover crops has declined. With growing environmental concerns regarding use and overuse of many of these chemicals and the loss of topsoil to erosion, interest in a more natural approach is experiencing a resurgence.
Where to begin
Select the right crop for your needs and area. While cover crops aren’t as intensive as managing a cash crop, they require soil preparation prior to seeding and some maintenance once they start growing.
Most cover crops tolerate a variety of soils and climates. Because each crop performs differently, consider mixing two or more species. A mix of annual crops with perennial or long-term crops often works well. Cover crops are planted in the spring and more often in the fall. Fall seeded cover crops help protect the soil from erosion and leaching during the winter when the soil is often left exposed to the elements. Fall cover crops provide extra forage for wildlife during the winter.
The most popular cover crops include cereal grains like rye, oats, wheat, barley, millet and buckwheat. Legumes include peas, clovers, alfalfa, soybeans and hairy vetch. There also are grasses such as milo, sorghum Sudangrass and Sorghum bicolor. The cereal grains and grasses are fast growing, and seed is less expensive. Legumes grow slowly but are valuable for converting nitrogen in the soil into a form plants and microorganisms can use. Additional crops may include sunflowers, forage turnips and oilseed radishes.
Almost all types of cover crops provide wildlife with some amount of food and cover for resting, nesting, and rearing young. Cover crop mixes are available specifically to improve wildlife habitat and include additional plant varieties that provide extra forage for wildlife. Once you’ve decided on an area to plant your cover crops, perform soil tests in advance to determine if any soil amendments need to be added prior to planting.
Where to go for more help
For more information on how to plant and manage your cover crops, and for other land management tips for wildlife habitat improvement and products visit NWTF’s Project HELP (Habitat Enhancement Land Program) at www.nwtf.org. You can view or download the latest spring or fall edition of the Project HELP catalog that includes trees, seedlings, specialty seed mixes, native warm season grass mixes and related products. — Hazel Freeman
Through the NWTF’s Conservation Seed Program, seed companies donate outdated surplus seed to the NWTF for distribution to its state chapters. Chapters can purchase semi truckloads of surplus, treated seed such as corn, soybeans, milo and wheat, for the cost of shipping and handling. Chapters then make these seeds available to members for use in their land management improvement plans. Local and state chapters should work with their NWTF regional director to determine how they can use the program. Visit the “In Your State” section of the NWTF website to find contact information for the regional director in your area. Quantities are limited, so order early.