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Keep a living root

Do not let your soil sit bare through the winter

Don Donovan

June 18, 2024

2 Min Read
Cattle grazing in a field of cover crops
LIVING COVER: This field held living roots throughout the winter months in the form of cereal rye. For livestock producers, the value of this cover crop is multiplied by sending cattle out to graze it. Allison Lund

Soil health is one of the buzz words across American agriculture. 

There are at least four primary basic principles involved in the concept of soil health: limiting soil disturbance; keeping the soil covered with residue or a cover crop; maximizing diversity; and sustaining a living, growing root as much of the year as possible. 

Maintain a living root

At a recent spring cover crop field day, discussion revolved around the importance of a living root and why cover crops, especially those that grow all winter, are so important to improving soil health.

If you have a living root over the winter, you also have a living plant providing erosion control, potential grazing and residue for weed control. These are some of the more well-known and familiar reasons Indiana farmers have chosen to use cover crops in their cropping systems. 

Right behind those reasons come a couple of others: nutrient scavenging and dealing with compaction issues. Unused nutrients can be subject to leaching over the winter or lost by erosion. A winter cover crop will help to tie up those nutrients and make them available as the cover crop decomposes.

Although a cover crop may appear to not be doing much over the winter, cover crops such as cereal rye and annual ryegrass are growing all winter long. They find those moist soils much easier to penetrate, leaving channels for corn roots to follow during the dry months the following summer. 

Roots release exudates and sugars into the surrounding soil. These exudates act as a signaling messenger that allows for communication between soil microbes and plant roots. Without exudates, the efficient transfer of nutrients from the soil into the plant can be interrupted, and the growing plant can suffer from a lack of needed nutrients. 

If the soil does not have a living root over the winter, it will take time to redevelop these relationships in the spring, potentially slowing down the transfer of needed nutrients to young growing cash crops. Exudates also add carbon to the soil, helping to build organic matter, which leads to a more efficient nutrient-cycling system and a more resilient soil. 

Rest not necessary

It was once thought that soils needed to rest between crops. We are learning that the opposite is true. A cover crop between cash crops is harvesting sunlight, converting it into sugars, and releasing exudates into the soil to be used to increase the efficiency of nutrient transfer from soil to plant roots. 

One of the few free inputs you will ever find in modern agriculture is available all year long. All you need is a collection system. A growing plant with a living root is that collection system for sunlight. Plant a cover crop that will grow all winter, collect free solar energy, scavenge leftover nutrients, protect the soil surface from erosion, relieve compaction issues and keep your nutrient transfer system efficient.

About the Author(s)

Don Donovan

Don Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Parke County, Ind. He is a contributor to the Salute Soil Health column that appears regularly in Indiana Prairie Farmer on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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