Greg Whitmore of Shelby is enrolled in the Soil Health Partnership, a national data-driven initiative that encourages farmers to incorporate strategies to improve soil health on their land. These strategies include growing cover crops, practicing conservation tillage and advanced nutrient management. Cover crops such as radishes, turnips, rye and other species are not only helping Whitmore improve the overall quality of soil on his land. Cover crops are also helping him keep the soil he has.
“I got tired of seeing that soil blow away in the spring or wash away down the hill during a hard rain,” he said. “Cover crops have helped stabilize the soil and improve its overall quality. We’re already seeing significant return in terms of productivity and reduced input costs.”
“The cover crops also suppress weed growth, so I’m saving money on herbicide and reducing impact on the environment by reducing chemical use,” Whitmore added.
Typically, Whitmore plants the cover crops immediately after harvesting his primary cash crop. The cover crops grow in the months after harvest, keeping the soil “active” long after the primary crop is taken out of the field. When the cover crops eventually die off in the winter or are killed prior to spring planting, they add organic matter to the soil as they decay.
Importantly, the cover crops also help the soil retain moisture and withstand erosion during winter winds and early spring rains. As the roots burrow into the soil, they create “channels” for better water infiltration, nutrient dispersion and soil stability.
Radishes and turnips have deep tap roots which capture nutrients that may lie beyond the reach of the primary crop such as corn or soybeans. By absorbing those nutrients, the cover crop brings those nutrients closer to the surface, where they become available once the cover crops die off.
“I see the use of cover crops as a key sustainability strategy for my farm,” Whitmore said. “I reduce erosion, reduce weed pressure, improve the soil’s nutrient value and enhance soil moisture. It’s a systems approach to soil health that isn’t just about cover crops, but requires holistic management of fertility, water, nutrients, tillage and other practices.”