Improving Soil Health with Cover Crops

Study give producers decision-making data

Article ID: 687096

Released: 19-Dec-2017 2:05 PM EST

Source Newsroom: South Dakota State University

  • Cows grazeon a field planted with a blend of Daikon radishes, purple-top turnips, barley, oats, kale, Proso and pearl millet, pea, cowpea and lentils as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to determine how cover crops affect soil health.

  • Doctoral student Navdeep Singh monitors nitrate and phosphate levels in the subsurface water using piezometers installed in the soil.

  • South Dakota State University researchers gather data on greenhouse gas emissions to evaluate the impact that using cover crops for fall grazing has on environmental quality. This is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture project on Integrated Crop Livestock Systems.

Newswise — Producers are open to innovative ideas that can improve soil health, but need more evidence before adding cover crops to their rotation plans, according to assistant professor Sandeep Kumar of the South Dakota State University Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science.

Kumar, who leads the SDSU project, is one of 26 scientists working on a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to determine how cover crops, such as oats, sorghum, turnips, radishes and millet, planted after harvest for grazing can affect soil health. Postdoctoral research associate Bishal Kasu, who surveyed producers, said, “If agricultural producers perceive the approach can contribute to the long-term farm profitability, then farmers are on board.”

Researchers from four other universities—North Dakota State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology—along with USDA offices in Lincoln, Nebraska; Mandan, North Dakota; and Brookings are involved in the four-year National Institute of Food and Agriculture project.

The researchers are assessing the impact of incorporating grazing crops at seven sites covering three states—North Dakota, Nebraska and South Dakota. They are gathering data on soils, crop and livestock performance and environmental parameters, such as greenhouse gas emissions.

“The crops and grazing treatments are different in each state because of the variability in precipitation,” Kumar noted. In South Dakota, the researchers are using cover crops in a three-year rotation, right after small grains, which are harvested in June and July.

At the Southeast Research Center near Beresford, for instance, the researchers are evaluating three treatments—corn-soybeans-oats, corn-soybeans-oats/cover crop and corn-soybeans-oats/cover crop with grazing. Associate professor Peter Sexton, coinvestigator of the funded project, oversees this part of the research.

Preliminary data from the first year of grazing shows no negative impacts to soil health, according to Kumar.  Detailed analysis of last year’s results as well as those from this fall will give producers that data regarding cover crops.

“Cover crops can add nutrients and organic matter to the soil,” he said. Legumes provide nitrogen and tubers, such as radishes and turnips, create pores as the roots decay that allow the water/rainfall to penetrate deeper into the soil. This can also help reduce runoff into lakes and streams.

“The goal is greater sustainability,” Kumar noted.


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