Excerpts from Natural Resources Conservation Service publications
Spring is on the way! It’s time to start thinking about plants and soil health. When a falling raindrop explodes as it hits bare soil, it dislodges unprotected soil particles, and begins the process of soil erosion. Cover crops and plant residue prevent that violent splash on soil, protecting soil aggregates from being pounded by falling raindrops.
Safe from disintegration by the hammering energy of raindrops, the structure of healthy soils remains intact, which prevents soil crusting. In this protective environment, water infiltrates the soil and becomes available to plant roots.
A mulch of crop residues or living plants on the soil surface also suppresses weeds early in the growing season, giving the primary crop a competitive advantage. This is especially the case if the cover crop is rolled prior to planting the main crop because the entire soil surface is covered and protected.
Cover crops can build moisture reserves fat better than row crops can by themselves. Cover crops open pores and small channels in the soil for better water infiltration, and the organic matter they build helps retain both moisture and nutrients.
The cool, moist soil of cover crops also provides favorable habitat for many organisms that decomposes residues and recycle nutrients for the next crop. Providing a good habitat for these organisms can increase residue decomposition, and improve nutrient cycling, by up to 25 percent.
Through their roots, living plants offer soil microbes their easiest, most reliable food source. Because these soil microbes need a consistent food source throughout the year to thrive, cropping plans that include crop rotations with cover crops throughout the growing season (or perennial grasses and legumes) can help sustain them year-round.
Every soil organism has something it eats…and something that eats it. Each organism and each bit of plant residue is important to the complex food web under the soil surface. While each source of microbial food is important to a balanced food web in a healthy soil, there is no better food for soil microbes than the sugars exuded by living roots.
Living plants maintain a rhizosphere, an area of concentrated microbial activity close to the root. The rhizosphere is the most active part of the soil biology because it is where the most easy-to-eat food is available for microbes. It’s also critical for plant growth and health, because those microbes, in turn, provide essential nutrient cycling for crops.
Because living roots provide the easiest source of food for soil microbes, growing perennial crops or long season cover crops is the key to feeding the foundational species of the soil food web- so they’ll be healthy and ready to perform throughout the primary growing season.
Sounds pretty interesting right? This is where it all starts…in the soil. If you’d like to learn more, you will be happy to learn that there is a soil health meeting here in our neck of the woods next month, on Monday, February 12, from 5:30-8:00 p.m. The event is free, and dinner is provided! It’s at the Holmes County Library, 3102 Glen Drive, in Millersburg. A number of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) have collaborated to provide this event. Come and listen to Bret Margraf, Seneca County SWCD Nutrient Technician talk about planning for cover crops and nutrient applications. Also on the agenda is a farmer roundtable consisting of farmers from Holmes, Tuscarawas, and Coshocton County, who will offer their experiences in utilizing cover crops in their operations. Come join us on February 12, and bring a friend! Please register by 2/10/18 at www.holmesswcd.com , by clicking the link at the top of the page, or by calling (330) 674-2811, or stopping in at the Holmes SWCD office at 62 W Clinton St, in Millersburg. We hope to see you on February 12!
Gina joined USDA-NRCS as a part-time intern in 2004 until she was brought in full-time in early 2006 as a Grasslands Specialist for the Zanesville Area Office. Later in 2012, she became a Resource Conservationist for Coshocton and Holmes counties. She holds a BS in Conservation from Kent State University. While she is based in Coshocton and can be reached there at (740) 622-8087 Ext 7229, she’s also a frequent visitor to the Holmes office and can be reached at (330) 674-2811. You can also reach her via email, which firstname.lastname@example.org