Cover Crops: Growing Solutions Right Under Our Feet

By Kevin Coffman

Sometimes the solutions to recurring problems are right there in front of us. For centuries, people have used cover crops to help manage pests, reduce weeds, improve rainfall capture and enrich soils to produce vegetables and grain – in a backyard garden or on a farmer's field.

Today, there is renewed interest to bring cover crops into modern farming practice. At our family farm in Missouri, we're still learning what does and doesn't work.

Cover Crops Protect Soil

Cover crops like grasses and legumes are planted over what would otherwise be a barren garden bed or field in between growing seasons for a primary crop. For farmers like us, after we harvest our primary crop like corn or soybeans, we plant a cover crop to cover and protect the soil until we plant next year’s corn or soybeans. Some of our neighbors use cover crops that produce nitrogen, a nutrient that helps make the following year’s crop more bountiful. Using cover crops as part of our farming practice, we think we can be more effective with our use of fertilizer and crop protection products during the growing season, saving time and money and helping to protect the environment.

Cover Crops Can Help Farmers Better Manage Soil Nutrients

There's so much potential to this growing solution. By enabling greater efficiency in the use of fertilizer and other inputs needed to grow our food, cover crops help prevent nutrient loss to our waterways and lower greenhouse gas emissions. When nitrogen fertilizer is applied to crops, most of the nutrients are absorbed by the plant. Inevitably, some amount is washed away by rain and may enter waterways. Fertilizer also releases a certain amount of greenhouse gases.

Cover Crops Help Farmers Reduce Water Usage

By creating soil structures that retain water better, cover crops may also reduce the effects of drought. The drought in the United States in 2012 was one of the worst in decades. Being part of a farm family and a company developing farm solutions, the impact of that drought mattered to me. That year, a farmer survey by the Conservation Technology Information Center showed a near 10 percent improvement in harvests when cover crops had been used prior to the drought.

Cover Crops Are One Tool in the Toolbox

We’re still learning. New tools and solutions give us more options to have a better harvest. Some solutions, like cover crops, are right under our feet.

To learn more about other ways we're working to make a balanced meal accessible to all while using resources more efficiently, check out the 2016 Monsanto Sustainability Report.