Cover Crops in the Great Plains – a view from a long time cover crop user- Part 1

I’ve had the privilege of meeting a gentleman from Kansas named Paul Conway.  Paul is an avid “cover cropper” and he has been for nearly 20 years! Paul reminds me of my father, who was an early pioneer of no-till (over 40 years of no-tilling on our farms).  I have asked Paul to give a more western feel to this blog since he has a different perspective on some of the cover crops that work well in the Great Plains that I typically don’t share.  I will be using Paul’s writings with his full permission.

In this post I will share Paul’s perspective on how and where cover crops fit in different systems.  Again, these are Paul’s views from his perspective, of which I find myself agreeing with.

Vegetables:  Using cover crops is vital for long term sustainable vegetable production.  Vegetables are fertility hogs. Intensive vegetable production will ruin soils no matter how much fertilizer you use. Fortunately the quick maturity and low residue of most vegetables allows many opportunities for the use of cover crops, more so than with field crops.

This is good and bad news. The variety of choices can overwhelm growers who want simple answers.  Use manure whenever possible in vegetable production to build organic matter especially when used with the cover crop grasses such as sorghum-sudan, grain rye, annual ryegrass, etc.

There are many opportunities for cover crops in both conventional and organic cropping, actually more so than in field crops.

Traditional field crop systems:  By this I mean the 1940-50’s ideal of animal husbandry and cash crops on the same farm supported by a varied rotation of row crops, small grains, and forage legumes (either alone or with grasses).  Cover crops are useful but not vital, as the rotation and manure application keeps the production system going.  Cover crops allow modifications to the rotation. Also annual warm and cold season grazed cover crops saves money and further diversifies the rotation.

Modern monoculture field crop systems: Corn and soybeans aren’t much of a rotation since they are both row crop summer annuals.  Cover crops are vital to long term sustainable field crop production since they essentially mimic the effects of a decent rotation as well as provide the agronomic benefits that you are well aware of.  Cover crops are easier to use if small grains are added to the rotation.

Grazing: Grazing warm season as well as cool season cover crops is a direct financial benefit of cover crops, as opposed to the recognized indirect financial benefits and adds diversity to the rotation.


A Note from Paul Conway about who he is and about his experiences:

I grew up mostly overseas and I have gardened all my life.  When I was a teenager I worked on farms in the summer.  I retired from the US Army in 1993 and started my market garden to grow vegetables commercially.  I have done this ever since except for 17 months in 2006-7 when I was recalled to active duty and sent to Iraq.

I have farmed organically since 1993. I was organically certified from 1994 until 2004 when I switched to Certified Naturally Grown, a certifier more friendly to small scale local market vegetable growers.  

I should say that organic farming does not work unless you pay almost fanatic attention to building and maintaining healthy soil. This means good crop rotations with a mix of row crops, small grains, and forages.  You must use manure (if available) and cover crops/green manures.  The degree of mix between the two is complex and farm dependent.  Simply switching to organically approved inputs without a good soil building rotation will not produce good yields.

Also, thanks to Paul for serving the USA in the armed services!

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