A Busy Person’s Intro to Cover Crops

Part 2 of our “Advanced Farming Opportunities” Series with Bill Brandon

By Bill Brandon

The big news is that the Ecological Systems Market Consortium was formalized in January 2020.  This is not a government program, it is a non-profit supported by major agriculture and food companies from Cargill to McDonald’s. 4

Their first area of focus will be cover crops for the Midwest.  They are targeting a value of $15/ton of CO2e sequestration in soils plus other sustainable objectives such as reduced soil erosion, preventing fertilizer pollution into waterways and building soil nitrogen and nutrients.  There will be a variety of practices that contribute to the ultimate value of an offset credit. The farmer should view this program as an opportunity to do the right thing while making money and/or reducing costs by doing it.

Objectives of cover crops  

There are five basic reasons for using cover crops. 

  • Prevent soil and nutrient erosion
  • Produce a marketable crop
  • Add nutrients to the soil
  • Maintain a good soil microbial ecology
  • Sequester CO2 and reduce Nox (a powerful greenhouse gas) and CO2 emissions from the soil

It has been pretty well established that a cover crop with roots does a better job in preventing erosion than loose surface material.  Planting a cover crop costs money and it is reasonable to look for a return on this investment. There is always a long-term return in healthy soil, but financial decisions must often be made on a year-to-year basis.

There are also cash advantages for cover crops.  Adding nutrients to the soil for the next growing season is a reduction of future expenses.  If this is your objective, red clover is hard to beat as a cover crop. It has a large amount of protein in its leaves, which is the source of nitrogen returned to the soil.  If a marketable product is your objective, an oil seed crop like any variation of pennycress is a good choice for the upper latitudes (generally above 35 degrees). It can be sold as a high value fodder for animals or the seeds can be sold to a processor, most likely a biodiesel refiner.

Another option will be selling ecological or carbon credits into the new market being set up.  This option will be discussed further in our next installment.

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