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By Damian Mason
For MAA
“Man - despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication, and his many accomplishments - owes his existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
I don’t know who said the above quote, but as a farm boy, I like it. Without soil (and precipitation) there is no us. While we can’t control the rains, we can certainly manage our soil. That’s why I’m a proponent of cover crops.  
Cover crops, admittedly, face some battles. For generations we’ve equated clean fields to good farming. I’m not the only farm kid who experienced a weekly Sunday drive after church to “check the crops,” which really meant: “snooping on the neighbors’ fields.”
Clean fields were a source of pride and fall tillage conveys a farmer who is on top of his game and prepped for spring. Unfortunately, that pride in workmanship leaves soil exposed to the devastation of wind and water. 
I’m no agronomist, but I did place ninth in the nation in FFA soil judging in 1987 (I still have the medal!). Soil judging taught me the value and fragility of top soil. What townsfolk call “dirt” is the very foundation of our existence. As the keeper of the soil, it’s our duty to manage it as the valuable asset it is.    

When you read about the latest farm sale, realize this: the buyer is paying for soil and it’s productive potential. Given that most farmers hold the bulk of their net worth in land, isn’t it smart to protect this resource? 
A few benefits associated with cover cropping:   
Erosion control:  Sustainability might be a marketing buzz word, pushed by foodies and the Whole Foods crowd, but when it comes to soil, we’re not sustainable without it. The biggest payoff and justification for cover crops, period, is erosion control. 
Right behind erosion control, and closely related, is reduced soil compaction and improved soil tilth.  Rye grass has a root system up to 5 feet deep and radishes have a 12-inch tap root. That’s a whole lot of compaction layer busting done naturally, versus using the “V” Ripper.  
Weed suppression and water management: Cover crops create a mulch layer which controls weeds better than bare soil. That mulch layer also retains top soil moisture.
Deep rooted cover crops aid in percolation of winter moisture. Come August, subsoil moisture will be nurturing your thirsty crops.  
Nutrient utilization: Radishes scavenge nutrients from your soil during the off season then make those vital nutrients available to your crop. If 11 percent of input expenses are fertilizer, why not get more bang for your fertility buck? Positive results on nitrogen sequestration via cover crops might equate to reduced nitrogen application too. 
Crop diversity: We all know the value of crop rotation. After 50 years of corn followed by soybeans, how much rotation have we really accomplished? Cover crops like clover introduce a third plant to the cycle. The benefit? Nitrogen fixation, improved soil biology and tilth, and possibly pest control.  
Agriculture is an industry under attack by environmental activists and our own government. Need I point out the regulatory overreach happening with EPA and its Waters of the U.S. initiative?  How about the algae bloom in Lake Erie blamed on farm phosphates? Cover crops demonstrate ag’s environmental stewardship. Farmers touch the Earth every day, let’s show we’re taking the lead to protect it.    
Land is your biggest investment and the foundation of your farming operation. Investment advisors caution wealthy clients to never dip into the principal, and only live off the dividends and interest. So look at soil as your wealth and cover crops as a way of nurturing your principal. Eventually, the dividend returns will increase.Damian Mason is a professional speaker, entertainer, writer, businessman and farm owner. Learn more at www.damianmason.com.
 


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