2016-02-06. Cover Crops, a Farming Revolution With Deep Roots in the Past.

posted Feb 7, 2016, 1:10 PM by Alan Gould
By Stephanie Strom, The New York Times. For GSS Losing Biodiversity chapter 5. Excerpt: Mark Anson..., 60, and his two brothers, together with assorted sons and sons-in-law, run Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois. Concern about the soil quality of the family’s fields had nagged at him for some time. “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees,” he said, and such heat isn’t so unusual in the summer. ...What he learned about the benefits of cover crops gave him hope. But to [his brother] Doug, planting some noncommercial crops seemed an antiquated practice, like using a horse-drawn plow. Cover crops had long been replaced by fertilizers. Still, he shared his brother’s concern about their soil. Its texture was different, not as loamy as it had once been, and a lot of it was running off into ditches and other waterways when it rained. So in 2010 the family decided to humor Mark by sowing some 1,200 acres, which Mark describes as highly eroded farmland, with wheat cleanings and cereal rye. ...The next spring, Doug had to admit that the soil texture on that strip was better. ...But Doug didn’t become a believer until 2013, when the family was grappling with a terrible drought. “In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops, we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre than in places where no cover crops had been planted,” he said. “That showed me it made financial sense to do this.” Now some 13,000 of the 20,000 acres that the family farms across nine counties are planted with cover crops after harvesting, and farmers around them are beginning to embrace the practice. ...The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive. ...Cover cropping is still used only by a small minority of farmers. When the Agriculture Department asked for the first time about cover cropping for its 2012 Census of Agriculture report, just 10.3 million acres — out of about 390 million total acres of farmland sown in crops — on 133,124 farms were planted with cover crops. ...Before cultivation, Indiana was blanketed in prairie grasses and forest, and the carbon content of the soil was as high as 10 percent in places. Today, after decades of tillage, which moves carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, and monocropping, the level on many farms is below 2 percent.... Cover crops restore organic matter back into the soil, at a rate of about 1 percent every five years....  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/business/cover-crops-a-farming-revolution-with-deep-roots-in-the-past.html