Sustainability—it’s a word many people in and around the agricultural world have been hearing a lot lately. But what does sustainability mean and how can it be implemented? Sustainability can be defined, in the environmental science sense, as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” Many producers across South Dakota are taking steps each and every day to ensure their operation is sustainable today and into the future. One measure some South Dakotans are implementing is including cover crops in their crop rotation.
Cover crops are un-harvested crops, such as flax or radishes, grown as part of a planned rotation that provide benefits to the soil, most importantly by feeding microbes within the soil. Keeping living roots in the soil (before and after harvest) provides soil microbes with the habitat they need to thrive. Those microbes, in turn, provide nutrients and protection for crops harvested from that soil.
Many people take soil for granted and view it as a static feature on the landscape. What few people realize is that soils are a complex combination of air, water, organic and mineral matter. Until fairly recently, many people never gave much thought to how soil microbes could have an impact on the productivity and sustainability of a soil. What we know now is that soils are alive and by keeping the soil microbes healthy, we get more productive soils to grow the food, fiber and fuel that make our modern society possible.
Along with providing a healthy habitat for plants to thrive, cover crops also offer many different benefits. These include protecting the soil against water and wind erosion, suppressing weeds, reducing soil compaction and providing supplemental forages for livestock.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has resources and information available through their website (nrcs.usda.gov) or their local service centers. I would strongly recommend any producer looking to add cover crops to their rotation talk with their local NRCS team about what options would best help them reach their operational goals and possible assistance that may be available.
Where do you see your farm in ten years? Maybe even in twenty, thirty or forty years? Sustainability is all about taking care of what we have now and preparing it for the future. Cover crops can be one tool to help you have a sustainable operation for years to come.