What’s Cropping Up to Improve Soil Health?

What’s Cropping Up to Improve Soil Health?

In our last blog post, we discussed how greater plant diversity benefits your crops by unlocking nutrients, enhancing resilience and improving soil structure. Methods such as cover cropping and intercropping increase the diversity of the ecosystem to help improve biodiversity and achieve these outcomes. In this blog post, we ‘dig’ a little deeper into the benefits of these regenerative tactics. 

Firstly, what’s the difference between intercropping and cover cropping?

Intercropping refers to the cultivation of two or more crops simultaneously on the same field; while cover cropping refers to planting ground cover in between harvests to avoid leaving fields bare. 

When it comes to commercial farming, both of these methods increase overall diversity in a field, thus providing a foundation for organic nutrient management, weed suppression, pest control and improved soil health.

The benefits of cover cropping 

As we’ve covered in numerous blog posts, much of what we have done in modern agriculture is in contradiction with natural laws and principles. This includes the practice of growing a single species on a patch of land, then removing this plant during the harvest. Neither of these is a natural occurrence. In nature, if a field was to be left bare for some reason, ‘pioneer’ plants would quickly grow over the soil. 

The benefits of pioneer plant life:

  • Feed the soil life with their sugar exudates
  • Provide a living root mat to stabilise the soil to prevent leaching
  • Protect the soil from the direct impact of the sun
  • Their roots mine minerals from deeper down in the soil profile.

This regenerative approach can be emulated by cover cropping; rotating the species planted on a piece of land. Cover crops provide ground cover to avoid leaving fields bare. They take on the role of the pioneer plants by providing weed competition, taking up excess moisture, maintaining soil nutrients, improving salinity and reducing wind and water erosion of soil. 

The choice of cover crop will depend on the goal for that field, for example:

Grassy cover crops act as “green manure”

  • Such as planting sorghum that can be composted in-field to build organic matter.

Nitrogen-fixing cover crops can increase soil nitrogen levels

  • Planting legumes before planting a cereal crop provides significant amounts of nitrogen. Legumes also release organic acids into the soil to release calcium and phosphorus (the two most important minerals for photosynthesis) in a plant-available form.

But won’t cover crops rob moisture from the main crop? 

The answer is ‘no’. In fact, you often get improved moisture management with a cover crop.

This is because cover crops:

  • Increase organic matter (humus), which holds its own weight in water.
  • Feed and stimulate bacterial populations, which constantly release a sticky substance that works just like water crystals.

The benefits of intercropping

Like perceptions of cover cropping, there is still a widespread belief that intercropping causes competition for moisture and nutrients with crops. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s take the example of a legume interplanted with a cereal crop. This legume isn’t intended for harvest, but it is planted with the crop to deliver a constant supplementary supply of vital elements, minerals and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium. As discussed above, the legumes will also improve moisture management. 

Part of a sustainable farming solution

Cover cropping and intercropping are critical ways to improve the quality of the soil (and thus create a better yield). At Zylem, promoting sustainable agriculture through improved soil health is one of our main focus areas, and we advocate for some form of cover cropping or intercropping as part of a sustainable farming solution.

Find out more about our services and solutions: https://www.zylemsa.co.za/

Contact us on 033 347 2893 or send your enquiry to admin@zylemsa.co.za.

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