2 farmers talking
COVER CROP TALK: Cover crops are a hot topic among farmers.

Don't be discouraged if your first cover crops fall short

Farmers don't stop planting all cash crops if some fail, so why do the same for cover crops?

Editor's note: Earlier this year, Dakota Farmer ran "Cover crop grazing trial falls short," about a cover crop research project failure, of sorts. Gabe Brown, a Bismarck, N.D., rancher, cover crop pioneer and Soil Health Consulting LLC partner, told me he had some ideas on why that project didn't turn out like expected. The following is his first in a four-part series of why cover crops sometimes fail and what you can do to increase your odds of success.

By Gabe Brown and Allen Williams

The term "cover crop" is everywhere today. You read about "cover crops" in farming magazines and ag news, and it's the hot topic at many agricultural conferences, workshops and field days. As farmers and ranchers, we are told that we really need to plant cover crops to protect the soil, build new soil organic matter, reduce input costs, reduce runoff and erosion, and even feed our next cash crop. So, more producers are trying out cover crops in an effort to improve their bottom line.

However, sometimes an article is written about those who have tried cover crops and experienced failures. The question then becomes, do cover crops deliver on the promises, or are they just an effort by some to sell more seed? Why do some cover crops fail?

The first question we would like to ask is, do farmers sometimes have cash crop failures? The obvious answer is, "yes." Farmers often experience cash crop failure. Since cash crops sometimes fail, do we stop planting them? No, we plow ahead (pun intended). We actually expect some failure in our cash crops, and we readily accept that as a part of doing business. However, many of those same farmers who have experienced repeated failure through the years with their cash crops give up after their first unsuccessful attempt at planting a cover crop.  

Brown and Williams are farmers from Bismarck, N.D., and Winston-Salem, N.C., respectively and are partners in Soil Health Consultants, LLC.

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