As dairy farmers, we feel that we have two main jobs: taking care of our cows and taking care of the land. Most of the things we do around the farm, starting with the decisions we make, are based off of what is best for the cows and the land.
One of the things we do to take care of the land is plant cover crops on some of our fields. Cover crops are planted in the fall after harvest and hold the soil and nutrients in place. We plant cover crops in fields that have a higher risk of erosion — usually areas with a lot of hills and waterways and those near rivers. For example, there’s a field right near the farm that is extremely hilly, and we always make sure to plant cover crops there in order to prevent erosion.
When we plant crops to make the cows’ feed, we’re more concerned with the part of the plant that is above the soil. With cover crops, we’re more concerned with the roots. The roots are what help hold the valuable layer of top soil in place so it doesn’t wash away from the field. We also spread manure nutrients on the cover crops. The cover crops take up the nutrients and use them to grow. Then, in the spring, the plant breaks down and the organic matter is added back to the soil. It’s nature’s way of working the soil without us having to intervene.
In the springtime, we will plant the spring crops right over the cover crops. The organic matter is all in the soil because soil nutrients weren’t lost due to erosion. The only cover crop we actually do harvest before replanting the field is winter wheat. For us, winter wheat is a “dual purpose” crop. We plant it in the fall with the other cover crops, and then in the spring, instead of planting crops over the wheat, we harvest it to make feed for the cows. The winter wheat is an amazing crop — holds the soil in place all winter, and then we’re able to use it for the feed!
If you ever see a green field during a warm winter, know it’s a cover crop working hard to protect the soil.