Cover It Up

A dead oat cover crop provides excellent soil protection in early spring.

Improve Soil Health

This is part two of our six-part Farm Gate series on soil—the foundation of our sustainable future.

Whether you’re managing soil in a farm field, vegetable garden or flower bed, keeping soil covered is a simple principle that will improve soil health.

Bare soil isn’t natural. It’s vulnerable to wind and water erosion, especially in early spring. Rain and melting snow wash away soil and the valuable nutrients and microbes within it. Soil that is covered with living or dead plant material is better protected from the erosive forces of water and wind. The plant material acts like a shield to keep soil in place.

Farmers and gardeners used to till soil under in the fall to prepare it for the following year. Tilling helped clean up fields and make spring planting easier. We’ve since learned that intensive tillage damages soil and leaves it exposed to erosion. Farm equipment is now capable of cutting through crop residue to plant directly into non-tilled land. This allows farmers to leave crop residue on the field through fall and winter without making it difficult to seed in spring. It also reduces the amount of fuel farmers use, as they no longer need to pull heavy tillage equipment across the farm.

Reducing the intensity and frequency of tillage is a great first step in keeping soil covered. But to master this soil health principle, it’s best to plant cover crops as well. Cover crops are not harvested but planted to protect and enhance the soil. They can be a single variety or a mix of species, either planted with the crop or following harvest. Once established, the leaves and stems shield the soil and hold it in place.

Soil functions best under a protective shield of vegetation. Follow this simple soil health principle to improve your land management practices and future harvests.

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