What Are the Benefits of Cover Crops—And How Do You Add Them to Your Rotation?

For a producer looking to improve soil quality on their operation, incorporating cover crops into the rotation makes a lot of sense.

You can replace nutrients and nurture soil health, prevent erosion, offer an alternative to pasture grazing for cattle, generate revenue through carbon capture programs and more—all by planting cover crops.

That’s not to say it is an easy switch for growers.

The threat of increased expenses and lost revenue in the short term, a learning curve that comes with new practices and the need for equipment and infrastructure upgrades all stand out as common barriers to adoption.

The benefits of growing cover crops

But for Jamie Johnson, a producer who farms near Frankfort in Spink County, South Dakota, the upside far outweighs the down when it comes to cover crops.

Johnson Family Farm South Dakota

“We see so many benefits from using cover crops,” says Johnson. “We have a lot less weed issues, increased organic matter and soil health across those acres. We’re able to get our cattle out on our crop ground more.”

A graduate of South Dakota Ag & Rural Leadership and current vice president of the South Dakota Soybean Association, Johnson farms 1,800 acres of cropland with her husband, Brian, and their four children. The Johnson family has built upon a foundation of progressive farming practices put in place by Brian’s father, Alan, and they’ve been pleased with the results.

“We started planting cover crops through a Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and quickly saw the benefits of adding that into our rotation, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” says Johnson.

She likens the role of cover crops in soil health to nutrition for the human body when talking to fellow growers about the benefits of regenerative practices.

“You don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again,” she says. “And the same thing is true with your soil, you know, having that diverse rotation and different things growing in your soil makes it healthier.”

How to get started with cover crops

So how do you begin adding cover crops into your rotation? Here are some of the key insights the Johnson family has gained from growing cover crops on their operation.

1. Establish your objectives 

Determining which cover crops to plant all depends on the outcomes you want to achieve. Start by asking yourself what your objectives are. Then do the homework and resource gathering necessary to figure out how to best achieve them.

If you’re out to prevent weeds, for example, you might choose a cereal such as rye or barley or perhaps a legume like alfalfa. Need to fight soil erosion? Consider wheat, barley or lentils. Growing a grazing option might lead you to plant forage variety of sorghum, turnips or radishes.

The Johnson family sought insights from their local conservation district when planning their rotation; ultimately your own conservation district, agronomist or fellow producer can serve as a valuable resource for making the right cover crop decisions for your operation.

2. Start small—and test everything

Not unlike other changes you implement on your operation, it’s always best to start small until you have figured out what is going to perform well.

“No joke—I started using rye in my garden to prove to Brian that we should use it on crop acres,” Johnson says. ‘I mean, that’s as small as you can get.”

Her decision to plant rye was born out of frustration and a sheer inability to keep up with weeds in her garden due to on-farm responsibilities and the duties of parenthood. The Johnsons eventually incorporated rye on a small test plot on their cropland.

Today, they contract an aviator through their farm cooperative to broadcast rye seed onto acres with standing corn each fall.

With each new cover crop practice, the Johnsons have tested and fine tuned their methods to gain optimal benefits from their efforts.

3. Find help from your local conservation district

As noted previously, Johnson found excellent support from her local conservation district when she and Brian first began adding cover crops to their rotation.

That support pipeline is still intact.

They’re able to purchase inputs, rent interseeders and air drills, receive agronomic counsel and learn about emerging practices and trends—all through the conservation district.

“Our local conservation district is a great resource,” says Johnson. She’ll tell you that tapping into this sort of expertise is imperative to successfully incorporating cover crops in your operation.

If you’re ready to start planting cover crops—or if you’d like to explore that possibility further—connecting with your local conservation district office is a great place to begin.

Click here for the Conservation Districts contact information.