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Cover crops improve soil health, help farmers weather drought

By Jody Christiansen and Ciji Taylor
NRCS Public Affairs

With assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers and ranchers across the nation are using cover crops to protect soil – their most valuable asset, especially with many facing drought conditions again this year.

“Producers are beginning to see great value in cover crops,” Eric McTaggart NRCS district conservationist for Livingston County, Ill., said.

Cover crops help improve soil health by reducing erosion, increasing soil organic matter content, improving air and water movement through soil, reducing soil compaction, capturing and recycling nutrients in the soil profile and managing soil moisture to promote biological nitrogen fixation. Several farmers and ranchers using cover crops saw increases in yields during extreme drought.

“I read an article about cover crops a couple of years ago and thought I’d give it a try,” Illinois farmer Daniel Steidinger, said.

Using radishes as a cover crop, Steidinger successfully increased water infiltration in areas where water previously flowed across the field. The radish root depth aerated the area enough to pull water further down into the soil profile instead of letting it run off the surface.

“There was a 100-bushel difference in my field with cover crops, and in a drought like we had, that just speaks for itself,” he added.

Nearby farmers, Danny and Kevin Harms, planted annual rye grass. This cover crop grows roots as deep as 40 inches.

“We wanted something to pull nutrients up from deep down and bring them closer to the surface,” said Danny. With its thick, fibrous roots, annual ryegrass does that and more, helping with compaction, water infiltration and nitrogen sequestration.

Farmers and ranchers can plant several different types of cover crops. The species of cover crop selected along with its management determine the benefits and returns.

“NRCS works with producers to determine what specific issues or needs their operation faces, and we help them select the ideal cover crop species or mix that addresses those needs,” said McTaggart.

Cover crops are just one conservation practice that can help mitigate drought impacts. Visit us at www.nrcs.usda.gov for Drought Mondays and explore more ways to make your lands more resilient to drought.

Read more drought information