During President Biden’s speech to the nation, he mentioned as one of his goals, farming and ‘cover crops’. Although most of the nation has some concept of farming, most have never heard of ‘cover crops’ and even for farmers, this is a new concept.
Ray Archuleta who works for NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service – USDA) had this to say:
“…I have been in NCRS for 32 years…I went to years of college and I took soil science and I didn’t know. I really did not know how soil worked. Its alive.”
All though I am several years older than Ray, I can relate to his lack of knowledge. I had three years of agriculture and had qualified for district, and state competitions on different avenues of farming. I even went to International contests for ‘Soil Judging’. Never once do I remember anyone mentioning the organisms in the soil. I knew that there were earthworms, but was unaware of anything else. If you ever have a chance to see soil under a microscope, you will see lots of different organisms, and even some microscopic little animals that look like miniature insects.
Over the years, while in another vocation, I still kept an interest in farming and gardening. At one time, I had a collection of 20 years of J.I. Rodale’s ‘Organic Gardening and Farming’ magazines. I still can’t remember any mention of organisms in the soil probably because my interest was in farming without chemicals or artificial fertilizers. I studied Ruth Stout and her methods of gardening without tilling, where instead of tilling, adding mulch on top of the soil to prevent weeds and to add organic matter. If she talked of organisms in the soil, I missed it…just as Ray Archuleta, schooled as an agronomist, ‘didn’t know how soil works’. Although some interest was expressed in the mid 80’s, I could only find literature being posted starting in 2000.
Some say there are a billion microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil or as someone else said, there are more organisms in a bucket of soil than stars in the universe (There are more stars in our universe than there are grains of sand on our earth).
But Dr. Kristine Nichols, chief scientist Rodale Institute puts it this way:
“In every handful of healthy soil, there are more organisms than the number of people who have ever lived on Planet Earth. And those organisms are processing organic matter that’s in the soil and putting the nutrients in a form the plant needs” “These organisms, through cover crop farming, can drastically reduce the carbon in our air.”
According to Kristin Ohlson author of ‘The Soil Will Save Us’ :
“Plants use sunlight as energy, and they pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they turn it into a carbon fuel and that is how they grow. But 40% of that carbon fuel they send down to their roots. They’re leaking it out in a very strategic way to soil microorganisms. Plants are feeding soil organisms carbon, and the soil microorganisms are bringing plants mineral nutrients…those soil microorganisms make a carbon glue out of the carbon fuel. They make habitat in the soil They make little pockets in the soil to control the flow of air and water. And that’s one of the ways that carbon gets mixed in the soil.”
Some scientists believe that if all farmers used ‘cover crops’, as much carbon would be removed from the air as we are currently putting into the air. For this reason, Ray Archuleta from the movie Kiss the Ground on Netflix https://www.netflix.com/ says:.
“Tillage is one of the most intrusive things we do in modern agriculture.”
Woody Harrelson from “Kiss the Ground” on Netflix https://www.netflix.com says:
“In the 1930’’s, America experienced the largest man-made environmental disaster in history..Duet Bowl…It was largely caused by farmers tilling the once-fertile Midwestern Plains and leaving the soil exposed… Massive erosion…”
“…President Roosevelt saw the destruction of America’s soil firsthand. In response, he created the Soil Conservation Service”
“…and reduce the spraying of industrial chemicals… that damage the soil”
And release carbon that has been stored in the soil.
One of my first jobs, when I was 17 in the late ’50s, was to apply anhydrous ammonia in the ground between the corn plants. This anhydrous ammonia was nitrogen for the corn plants and made the plants produce like never seen by these farmers. As we applied it, we always made sure that we had an extra container of water because if we accidentally leaked some on our skin, it would burn. The water neutralized the acid-like compound. Our tractors had knives that entered the soil with holes that allowed the compound to be injected below ground so it would not escape as a gas. If this product would burn my skin, guess what it did to the tender microorganisms that resided in the ground. As science evolved, plants were introduced with ‘genetically modified organisms’ which allowed stronger and stronger poisons to be sprayed on the plant without harming the plant. Of course, the reason for GMOs was to be able to kill weeds, insects and even soil-borne seed destroying insects (wire worms that destroy corn seeds are one of our biggest threats).
Ever since man began growing crops, they have tilled the soil. It began with sticks digging into the ground, then later, with oxen pulling a hardened stick that acted like a plow. After the crop was gathered, the residue left over would be used to thatch the roofs of homes and even the dung from the oxen would be allowed to dry and then be used for firewood. Where civilization has existed for years, like in Africa and the Middle East, the soil has been degraded more and more with deserts expanding their reach into these areas. There is a school of thought that some civilizations may have disappeared because the soil had been so degraded.
In recent years, we have ceased tilling the soil as much because of the use of ‘no til’ planters. These planters will insert the seed into the soil without disturbing it. Any weeds that grew while the ground lay idle will be killed with a spray. Then any weeds that sprout and grow along with and after planting will again be sprayed with a poison. GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are introduced into many plants that enable the crop to survive the spray. We have ceased tilling the soil as much, but have increased our use of poisons which affect the organisms in the soil.
So, how do ‘cover crops’ work? Most farming involves a period of growth of the crop with a period of vacant land during the offseason. In the U. S. today, many farmers have a two or three crop rotation. For example, they grow corn one year followed by soybeans the next year, and in some areas, a third crop like cotton or sunflowers. The crop is planted in April or May and harvested in September or November. The rest of the year, nothing is growing on the land.
With ‘cover crops’, a crop is sown in the fall that will live through the winter. Usually, the crop will be a mixture of three or sometimes as many as a dozen different varieties. Some will be short-season crops that will die out in the spring while others will produce lots of forage. Many, like daikon radishes, will have roots that are large and go deep into the soil. Some will produce nitrogen, sometimes as much as over 100 lbs per acre.
The result is nitrogen that is available for future crops and will not leach out during heavy rains, The rooted crops bring up other minerals from deep within the soil. There is a large amount of forage available to increase the humus in the soil (increases water holding capacity).
The forage amount may be 3 or 4 feet tall. To be able to eliminate and be able to plant in this dense cover of product will necessitate the need for a roller crimper. The living crop will be rolled with this roller crimper which will lay it flat on the ground providing a mulch. A modified ‘no til’ planter can then be used. In some instances, the cover crop will need a reduced amount of chemicals to fully kill the crop so that it doesn’t spring back creating a barrier for the new crop.
The results for farmers are:
- Better water holding capacity of the soil.
- Less wind and water erosion.
- Less chemical use.
- Less applied fertilizer.
- Better drought production.
- Less use of GMO seed (less cost).
- Fewer weeds.
- Increased microorganism activity.
Conversion to ‘cover crops’ can be done quickly (unlike organic certification) with little investment in new machinery. NRCS will provide guidance and may have some financial incentives. The state of Maryland is paying farmers to use ‘cover crops’.
The results for our nation are:
- Carbon sequestering.
- Cleaner water.
- Less chemical use.
- Less soil loss.
- Less pollution of oceans.
Already a part of our government, “NRCS is investing $330 million in 85 Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects to help mitigate climate change and protect natural resources, while supporting producers.”
There are ample articles as well on YouTube videos with positive results over serval years for examples. The Rodale website has a white paper and they carry a book “Roller Crimper No Till’ that covers 30 years of experience. Just as the seed, fertilizer and chemicals companies educated farmers on their product, we need to do the same and this is our President’s aim.
I will be writing a series of articles concerning how ‘’cover crops’’ affect our water, air, fertilizer use, food quality and quantity, carbon, foreign countries and even how to utilize ‘cover crops’ in your garden.