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Cover Crops: A Green Solution to Combat Climate Change

19 Jun 2024

Modern farmers arm themselves with many techniques and technologies to stay efficient while protecting the lands they grow their produce on. Cover crops are one of the options. These green guardians of farming are planted between cash crops to protect and enrich the soil with the necessary micro and macro elements. Whether it’s grasses, legumes or grains, they play a crucial role in reducing soil erosion and enhancing its health. 

By creating a living mulch, cover crops also conserve moisture and suppress weeds, minimizing the need for herbicides.

How does this work? 

The roots grow deep into the soil, breaking up its layers and enhancing water and air infiltration. Additionally, cover crops capture and hold nutrients, especially nitrogen, that might otherwise be lost to runoff, ensuring these vital resources are safe and sound until the next planting season.

As weather patterns become more unpredictable and more lands become unsuitable for growing food, smart cover crops management is one of the ways to make sure the farmland will be able to provide yields in the upcoming years.

Evidently, cover crops are more than just fillers between main crops. They are vital allies in sustainable agriculture. They have proved advantageous in many aspects of farming, from improving soil health and reducing erosion to conserving moisture and enhancing biodiversity. 

Cover Crops Advantages

To begin with, cover crops play an outstanding role in preventing soil erosion. Their dense, lush foliage acts like a protective blanket over the soil, effectively shielding it from the erosive forces of wind and rain. This protective layer ensures that the nutrient-rich topsoil remains intact and in place, which is crucial for fostering a fertile and productive ground for future crops. By maintaining the integrity of the topsoil, cover crops help sustain the soil's fertility, ensuring that it remains a rich medium for agricultural productivity.

Furthermore, cover crops excel in conserving soil moisture. When they form a living mulch, they significantly reduce the evaporation of soil moisture, thereby minimizing the need for frequent irrigation. This is particularly valuable in farming, where water is often considered as precious as gold. The moisture retention provided by cover crops creates a more consistent and stable growing environment for subsequent crops. This stability not only promotes the growth of healthier and more resilient plants, but also contributes to more efficient water usage in agriculture.

Planting cover crops is also great for the task of weed suppression. By growing vigorously, cover crops compete with weeds for essential resources such as space, light, and nutrients, effectively crowding them out. Some varieties of cover crops even possess allelopathic properties, meaning they release natural chemicals that inhibit weed seed germination. This natural weed suppression reduces the reliance on herbicides, thereby supporting a cleaner and more sustainable farming practice that is beneficial to both the environment and human health.

Another point in favor of cover crops is their undeniable ability to improve soil structure. Their roots penetrate deeply into the ground, breaking up compacted layers and enhancing its water infiltration and aeration properties, creating an optimal environment for root development and nutrient uptake by plants. Enhanced soil structure also promotes better drainage and reduces the risk of soil compaction, which can hinder plant growth.

Winter cover crops or other seasonal varieties also play a pivotal role in nutrient management within the soil. Their particular specialty lies in capturing and storing essential nutrients, especially nitrogen, which might otherwise leach away. By incorporating cover crops back into the soil through practices such as green manuring, farmers can naturally replenish the soil's nutrient content. This process reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, promoting a more balanced and sustainable agricultural ecosystem.

Climate Change & Сover Crops

Traditionally, people believed organic matter came mostly from the above-ground plant residues, but it turns out that most of this carbon is lost to the air. Instead, the real magic happens underground with root exudates and a healthy, bustling community of soil microbes.

Cover crops, especially in their vegetative stage, are unbeatable when it comes to the task of trapping carbon. While regular crops only stay in this stage for a few weeks, cover crops can extend this crucial period. By capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it into the soil, they help reduce the overall concentration of greenhouse gasses. This process, known as carbon sequestration, is crucial in slowing down global warming. As these cover crops grow, they pull in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and, through their roots, store carbon in the soil long-term. This not only decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but also transforms our agricultural fields into effective carbon sinks, directly combating climate change.

There is also another perspective to that: The more carbon stored in the ground the better its overall health. Consequently, there is less need for watering, allowing for lowering emissions from water pumping and management. Moreover, by enhancing soil health and fertility, cover crops decrease the reliance on synthetic fertilizers, which are a significant source of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

About the Author

Vasyl Cherlinka is a Doctor of Biosciences specializing in pedology (soil science), with 30 years of experience in the field. With a degree in agrochemistry, agronomy and soil science, Dr. Cherlinka has been advising on these issues in the private sector for many years.


Article written by Vasyl Cherlinka


Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.