Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Soil Health Workshop: Cover Cropping Basics

Yesterday I spent the day at a workshop on improving soil health through cover cropping.  I was especially excited that the focus of the class was on livestock and row crops, as I am eager to develop my ideas on an intense rotational grazing system for pastured pork that incorporates diverse forage crops.  Plus it's just fun to be in a room full of people that get jazzed talking about dirt.

To start with the basics of pasture grazing (for those that need a quick primer)- animals are fenced in on pasture and harvest their own grass to eat.  In the winter, or other times of the year when there is little or no grass, the animals are fed hay (which is grass that is harvested and dried).  Lots of studies have shown that animals raised on pasture are healthier, produce healthier products (meat, milk, eggs), and are better for the environment.

In an intense rotational grazing system, the animals are kept in small paddocks or fenced in areas and are moved around the pasture.  By concentrating the feeding areas, and then allowing the pasture to rest (or recover) while the animals graze in another portion, you can greatly improve the quality of the soil, and therefore the quality of the pasture.

But there are ways to improve this system even MORE, by attempting to imitate nature.  In a natural prairie setting, there are hundreds of different species of plants growing on a plot of land and the ground is always protected by a thick layer of roots and forage.  Traditionally, large animals move through the prairie in densely concentrated herds, not returning to a certain area until the grasses have fully regrown.

This can be emulated on a farm by planting a diverse array of plants and mob grazing - moving herds of animals in tight groups through a rotational grazing system.  Scientists have found that the more diversity of crops that you plant, the better off you'll be.  Crops like alfalfa, buckwheat, chickpeas, soybeans, sunflowers, amaranth, corn, cowpea, triticale, hairy vetch, millet, sudan grass, clovers, turnips, radishes, and beets all get planted in one area.  In this system, the plants are able to feed each other, as well as the soil.  When the animals come through and graze the top half of the plants, this triggers the plants to release root exudates and feed the organisms in the soil.

You can also use this system of planting diverse cover crops to extend the growing season.  Brassicas (like collards, kale, and even mustards) will grow well after the first frost and provide lots of nutritious food for the animals.

One of my favorite presenters travelled from North Dakota to share his experiences using cover crops and diverse forages on his 6,000 acre farm.  I can't even imagine managing a farm that large, but it was really inspirational to see photos of his farm and the results of his research into improving soil health.  It's exciting to imagine how his ideas could translate to a smaller-scale operation to produce an extremely high-quality product and improve the environment.  Cover crops are a win-win!

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