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In the last installment we explored a few reasons why we plant cover crops (those green fields in the winter).

Now let’s look a little deeper.  

I will reiterate that while we are talking about agricultural fields here, the same applies to any soil activity. This would include gardens, disturbed soil for building purposes, gas line installation, etc. 

Two things that we know hurt soil productivity are tillage and not having something growing in it at all times.  

Think about it. 

If we grow crops, we use 4-5 months a year to produce something. That is not even half of the year. Any business is hard to run if you attend to it 40% of the time. We are learning the value of making it productive year-around.  

How many totally free energy sources do we have? I am sure I can get some arguments here, but I will say one.  The sun. The sun is one of the absolute necessities of life.  Plants need it to sustain life and grow (photosynthesis).  We need it for a lot of other things, but we also require plant growth to sustain our own lives.

Having said that, there are an unimaginable number of organisms in the soil that also rely on this system to survive. The one number we hear all the time is that there are more microbes in one teaspoon of (good) soil than there are people on this earth (8 billion, or so). Wow, one teaspoon? There is a lot going on in good, healthy soil.  

But to keep it healthy, we need the sun to produce living things (plants) so that soil microbes have something living to feed on for themselves. If that field/garden is dead for 7-8 months each year, then all the critters are dead too. If that is allowed to happen, then we have a lot fewer “workers” in the soil trying to help us produce that crop.  

These microbes are good things, but if we starve them for eight months, they won’t be around to help. The easiest example — earthworms.  Earthworms are THE be-all, end-all when it comes to soil health. Have you ever dug around in a garden that gets tilled every year? And maybe you even till between rows during the season for weed control  How many worms do you find?  Not many, if any. 

I can show you ag fields where you can hardly walk through them without stepping on worms. Worms create mixing of soil, breaking down of organic matter (nutrients for your plants), holes for water to infiltrate into the ground quickly, etc. We need them. If we till all the time, we destroy their holes. Newborns will not have enough energy reserve to ever get to the surface (without soil structure). They die before they even have a chance.  

Growing plants help feed the biology to create structure and sustain good soil life.  Those roots create channels and air pockets for microbes to use and hold water. They exude substances that keep the soil “glued” together. They help with erosion, which is maybe the most important reason to use them in Bradford County. They can help break up compaction, produce nitrogen for the next crop, give soil tilth, make fields less muddy which helps hold equipment up better, and so much more.

Stay tuned as we explore these benefits.

The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely.  You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.