When it comes to taking care of your farm or ranch for future generations, soil health is key to profitability and farm succession. More American producers are turning toward the use of cover crops to bolster soil health. In this post, we’ll cover:
A cover crop is a plant used to protect soil and improve biodiversity rather than for the purpose of harvesting as a cash crop. Cover cropping is a type of regenerative agricultural method that naturally manages soil and should not be confused with green manure, which though similar, consists of growing plants that will be plowed back into the soil.
The benefits of cover crops add up to more profits for your farm and better preservation so that you can pass a healthy farm down to the next generation. Some cover crop benefits include:
All of this leads to better financial health for your farm and better environmental health for our planet.
There is great variation in types of cover crop species, their purposes, the seasons they should be planted and in which plant hardiness zones they are best suited for. It can be dizzying! Here, we’ll break it down for you by purpose and season to point you in the right direction.
Before you start cover cropping, it’s good for you to know what your goals are.
If you grow vegetables, do you want your cover crops to replace the nitrogen in your soil that veggies tend to soak up? An important distinction to make for your cover crops is to decipher which are nitrogen fixing (adding and keeping nitrogen in the soil) vs nitrogen scavenging (reducing nitrate leaching).
Do you want to protect your raised beds? You’ll want cover crops that address that loss of soil structure and nutrients common in raised beds. You’ll also want cover crops that reduce soil compaction over time. Thankfully, almost all of the cover crops we’ll mention in this post are also great for raised beds. Raised bed cover crops include brassicas, broadleaf plants, grasses and legumes.
Are you looking for cover crops that can also serve as grazing material? Cereals, clovers, annual ryegrass, peas, vetch and sudangrass are great grazing material.
As with cash crops, there are certain times of year (and points in your crop rotation) when you should plant cover crops for best results. In the table in the next section, we’ll give you details about which types of cover crops should be planted when. But, first, let’s go over some important facts.
Examples: Sudangrass, Pearl Millet, Buckwheat, Sun Hemp
Spring and summer cover crops are best when planted right after the last frost when spring and summer are in full bloom. Some cover crops will require control maintenance after they’ve grown. For example, some non-legume broadleaves should not grow to seed or you’ll have an overgrowth problem on your hands. Other cover crops are winter-killed so you won’t have to do further control maintenance after their season.
Most growers will want to replenish nitrogen in the soil since vegetables and grains use lots of nitrogen when they grow. There are some cover crops that are perfectly happy year-round. You may have to do a bit of research to find a year-round cover crop for your region and needs but here are some general guidelines:
There’s a wealth of cover crops to choose from, so which is best for your farm? Depending on your region and the result you’re looking for, you’ll find there are many to choose from. The chart below gives a general outline of where to begin your cover crop search.
Note: The season suggestions are for each general type of cover crop. The best time to plant is determined by each species and your region. For example, brassicas are best in winter or spring but rapeseed, which is also a brassica, can thrive if planted in summer. Be sure to investigate the specific cover crop you’re interested in for best planting seasons.
You’ll also notice that we separate broadleaf non-legume cover crops from brassicas. Technically, brassicas are within the broadleaf non-legume category but because brassicas tend to thrive in different seasons from the rest of the category, we’ve separated them for clarity.
As we show in our chart and in the previous section, most cover crops are planted in spring and late summer, but there are some cover crop mixes that can go in the ground in the springtime and give you benefits by the end of the summer. But if you’re applying to federal funding, the best time is AFTER you receive the funding.
Here are four resources we recommend to secure funding for cover crop seed and equipment:
With over $3 billion available to producers every year, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is an excellent source for funding for your cover crop seed and planting costs. NRCS makes funding available on a cost-share basis to producers to plant cover crops – rates average about $35 per acre.
In fact, in 2022, the NRCS announced a $38 million investment in a Cover Crop Initiative. It began in 11 states to help producers mitigate climate change by encouraging them to adopt the use of cover crops and spread the word to others in the farming community. We suspect this program will expand to more states in the future.
Funding is disbursed to producers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP, pronounced like “equip”). The NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) also provides some cost-share funding, but is more appropriate for producers that already have implemented significant conservation practices and are looking to maintain, improve, or expand their conservation work.
One important thing to note about NRCS funding: it is structured as cost-share and often given on a reimbursement basis. That means you’ll have to cover the cost initially with other funds (either your own cash or a loan). And pay-back rates are typically capped at 75% of total project costs, but some underserved or beginning producers can receive up to 90% reimbursement. That said, our team has heard several farmers say that they received more than enough NRCS funding to fund their cover crop costs. If you’d like to learn more about the matching requirement and how cost-share works, read our guide to EQIP funding.
You can apply to EQIP anytime, since applications are accepted on a continuous basis. Note, however, that NRCS will batch applications for each year. So if you apply after the batching deadline (which is usually in the fall and winter), your application will be considered as part of the subsequent year’s funding pool.
Applying for EQIP can be time-consuming and quite competitive since only one in three applying farmers receive funding. FarmRaise specializes in applying farmers and ranchers for EQIP. If you’re ready to get started, we recommend that you set up a free FarmRaise account so you can see how our application tool works. If you think you may be eligible for EQIP funding, you can upgrade your account and a member of our team will personally work with you to make sure your application is in tip top shape.
Established in the 1930s and present today in almost every county in the United States, Conservation Districts are charged with assisting landowners and operators in implementing conservation initiatives. Many county-level Conservation Districts will have funding or technical support available to support your cover cropping efforts, although availability of direct funding assistance depends on state-level policies and funding allocations.
The Soil & Water Conservation Districts in Iowa, for example, administer funds to farmers for cover cropping and soil health efforts through the Conservation Cost-Share program and the State Revolving Loan Fund. And, at some county Conservation Districts in Minnesota, producers can rent or borrow equipment for cover crop seeding and termination.
To learn what’s available at your local Conservation District, you can find the contact details for your county (or the nearest county) by visiting the National Association of Conservation District’s database.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) is a grant-making program of the USDA that awards grants to farmers to conduct on-farm research and education. Since the 1980s, SARE has funded over 600 on-farm projects related to cover crops and soil health.
SARE operates across four regions in the United States, and each region administers funding directly to farmers, ranchers, educators and researchers. A Farmer-Rancher grant is likely the best place for you to start. All SARE regions are currently accepting proposals for Farmer-Rancher grants.
If you’re interested in doing a research project on your farm that relates to cover crops or soil health, this opportunity will help you purchase materials. Some project ideas relevant to cover cropping include: legume winter cover crops as a source of nitrogen for your spring crop, interseeding cover crops into standing corn or soybean, planting green into cover crops in the spring or testing the value-added potential of certain cover crops.
Agribusiness companies and impact-oriented funds are increasingly interested in cover crops as a way to drive sustainability outcomes in the agricultural sector. Farmers can benefit from this trend by taking advantage of new private-led initiatives that are emerging to financially incentivize cover crop and soil health practice adoption. FarmRaise works to map these initiatives and put them all in one database for you. If you’re curious about them, check out our Farm Funding Library. You’ll find all sorts of farm funding opportunities and get reminders of their deadlines.
Cover crops are a staple of regenerative agriculture and can help mitigate climate change while boosting your farm’s health and profitability. Pay attention to your soil’s needs and your hardiness zone to determine which cover crops are best for your farm or ranch.
If you want to start cover cropping, don’t go it alone. Get advice from a FarmRaise Farm Funding Advisor who can help connect you to funding opportunities that can cover regenerative agriculture initiatives on your farm like cover cropping.
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