Cover cropping fallow to restructure soils

Growers who are unable to get spring cash crops sown in good time and in suitable conditions should consider planting a cover crop instead.

That’s the advice from RAGT’s forage and soil health crops manager Helen Wilson, who says the benefits of growing a cover crop to help badly damaged and sodden soils recover in time for next season should far outweigh the cost of growing it.

“A suitable cover will help restructure soils by putting down masses of roots. This will also help by pumping out water through the leaves to aerate the soil. It will also add organic matter and encourage soil biology, including earthworms.

“This all leaves soil in much better condition than leaving it bare, reducing or eliminating the need for remedial cultivations in the summer and giving the following crop a much better start.”

It can be difficult to persuade growers to spend more money, especially if they have bags of seed sitting in the shed they have already paid for, she admits.

“It is very tempting to continue with the programme. However, smearing crops into already-damaged soils is throwing good money after bad. Spring crops have a short growing season so anything that holds the crop back should be avoided, including cold, wet seed-beds and compaction. You also risk damaging your soils further if you cultivate when they are wet.”

Waiting for better conditions might not work either, she adds. “Once we get into mid or late April, depending where you are in the country, I’d suggest spring crops are very unlikely to cover their costs. You might as well save your seed for next year when it will do some good.”

Planting the right cover crop will deliver substantial benefits even if it is only in the ground for a couple of months, although the longer it is left, the more good it will do, she says.