Farmers Embrace Cover Crops To Improve Soil, Reduce Runoff

Jan 29, 2016

The sight of bare soil and chopped down corn stalks might become rarer in Vermont, as farmers plant more winter cover crops. Agriculture officials say the practice can improve soil health and protect water quality by preventing nutrient run off.

At a corn field in East Middlebury, Kirsten Workman of the University of Vermont Extension is digging the layer of snow off test plots of winter cover crops.

"We're trying all different things all the time. The first one is a combination of annual rye grass and what's left of what's called a Tillage Radish, like a Daikon Radish, you'd eat as a vegetable," Workman said.

The dead foliage on the tops of the Tillage Radishes cover a yellowish tuber, sticking three to four inches above the soil.

"It's a great manure nutrient recycler," Workman explained. "In the fall, when you spread manure on these radishes and any of these cover crops it really soaks it up and keeps those nutrients in the field. In the winter it's frozen and the plant's dead, but in the spring when it starts warming up it will begin releasing them back into the soil."

Kirsten Workman of the University of Vermont Extension, digging the layer of snow off test plots of winter rye in East Montpelier.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Last fall, farmers came to these test plots to see the cover crops in action. Workman says the combinations of plants seem to work best at holding the nutrients in place.

"If we can add a winter rye with a radish, the radish does nice in the fall, but then it dies, but in the spring the winter rye is still there," she said.

The radishes can also help break up compacted soils, which is helpful in the Champlain Valley's clay soils. More research is being done into the best way to plant cover crops, even with the corn still in the field, such as high clearance equipment and helicopters.

This fall, Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition members planted over 6,000 acres of cover crops. Workman says farmers typically start out small with cover crops, a few acres, and once they see the benefits to the soil, and the improvement to the corn crops planted after the cover crops, it catches on.

Mounds of annual rye grass and what's left of what's called a Tillage Radish poke out from beneath the snow. The crops are part of the UVM Extension's research into winter cover crops.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

That's how Shoreham farmer Loren Wood got started. He's now cover crops about 120 of his 1,300 acres and is experimenting with no-till practices.

"We'll only be doing more instead of less," he said.  

Wood says his farm is just over a mile from Lake Champlain and run off is something that concerns him.

"It ends up someplace and many times it ends up in the lake," he said.

Funding has helped cover crops catch on too. Last year, the Vermont Natural Resources Conservation Service helped pay for 27,000 acres of cover crops. The state funded an additional 3,200 acres. And soon, cover crops may not be optional. The Agency of Agriculture's Ryan Patch says the first draft of the state's new Required Agricultural Practices included a provision that mandated cover crops. 

"Annual crops land subject to flooding and surface waters are required to be planted with cover crops and we set dates for establishment of those crops. If your field floods, you need to have a cover crop on it," he said.

Patch says that in addition to preventing run off, cover crops increase the organic matter in the soil and promote biological activity and soil health.