Discover the cover!
Make it loose!

Welcome to our virtual Cover Crop Workshop!

Our pages are still under construction, so please bear with us as we work to finish them. In the meantime, take a "minute" to visit the link below and begin discovering the cover!

Soil Health Lesson in a Minute - Discover the Cover!

The following articles are part of the USDA-NRCS "Healthy Soils Are" newsletter article series, and "Unlocking the Secrets in the Soil" healthy soils campaign.

Stop the splash, harvest the benefits

When a falling raindrop explodes as it hits bare soil, it dislodges unprotected soil particles, and begins the process of soil erosion. Cover crops and plant residue prevent that violent splash on soil, protecting soil aggregates from being pounded by falling raindrops.

Safe from disintegration by the hammering energy of raindrops, the structure of healthy soils remains intact, which prevents soil crusting. In this protective environment, water infiltrates the soil and becomes available to plant roots.

A mulch of crop residues or living plants on the soil surface also suppresses weeds early in the growing season, giving the primary crop a competitive advantage. This is especially the case if the cover crop is rolled prior to planting the main crop because the entire soil surface is covered and protected.

Cover crops can build moisture reserves far better than row crops can by themselves. Cover crops open pores and small channels in the soil for better water infiltration, and the organic matter they build helps retain both moisture and nutrients.

The cool, moist soil of cover crops also provides favorable habitat for many organisms that decompose residues and recycle nutrients for the next crop. Providing a good habitat for these organisms can increase residue decomposition, and improve nutrient cycling, by up to 25 percent.



Keep it covered, please!

If you’re trying to make your soil healthier, you shouldn’t see it very often. In other words, soil should always be covered by growing plants, their residues, or a combination of the two.

Keeping the soil covered all the time makes perfect sense when you realize that healthy soils are full of life and that the microorganisms living in the soil have the same needs as other living creatures. They need food and cover to survive.

When you have a vegetative cover on the soil, especially a living cover, you offer those microbes both food and shelter. Some scientists say when you till the soil and remove crop residues, the effects are as devastating to soil microbes as a combination of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire would be to humans.

From the perspective of the living creatures within the soil, a tillage tool like a chisel shank has the effect of ripping the ground like an earthquake; removing residue is like a tornado ripping the roof off a house; uncovered soil can be drenched and whisked away by gushing water and wind like that of a hurricane—or scorched in the hot sun like an out-of-control fire.



Let's get to the root of the matter...

Roots make cover crops special! As mentioned in the article above, cover crops open pores and small channels in the soil for better water infiltration. Below are pictures that demonstrate this.

Growth tubes
Root growth

Another example of the roots of cover crops at work. This video of a northwestern Indiana cover crop soil pit captures the essence of 2 and half days, 15 pits and three counties worth of seeing cover crops and soil health in action. Dig a little and learn a lot . . .

Field looks like almost no cover crop is present, but we found otherwise.


The slake test measures the stability of soil when exposed to rapid wetting. Poor soil stability results in increased runoff and erosion.

Below are two links demonstrating and discussing the slake test:

Soil health success “Out on the Land.” NRCS Area Agronomist Kate Norvell talks soil health and provides an on on-camera demonstration of the “slake test” in this recent episode of RFD-TV’s “Out on the Land” series filmed in Montana. Ballantine, Montana farmer Marc Vogel also explains why improving soil health has become a priority for his operation, the Vogel Land and Cattle Company. Click here to view the episode.

USDA NRCS Conservation Agronomist, Ray Archuleta, uses soil slaking and miniature rainfall simulator demonstrations to show how management affects soil quality on a farm located near Reidsville, North Carolina, in the Piedmont MLRA.


Aerial seeding Aerial seeding of cover crops is a great way to quickly seed a large amount of acres. Aerial seeding germination is an effective method for applying cover crop into any standing crop. This method has many benefits, including nutrient re-capture, improved soil health and stability, and provides a good source of food & cover for wildlife during the winter.

Sometimes experience can be the best teacher, so here are a few testimonials from farmers around the country that have included cover crops into thier agricultural practices and have seen their benefits.
(Courtesy NRCS Soil Health Communications Update November 2013.)

Focus on soil health geared to “greater sustainability and less risk” for Montana farm family. Julie Taylor and her husband, Curt, farm in Teton County, Montana about 40 miles from the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains—a region dominated by small grains, cattle grazing, and hay production. Julie, a third-generation farmer who grew up with fairly conventional agricultural practices, says their farming methods have gradually transitioned toward greater sustainability and less risk. Intensive grazing, cover crops, and no-till are some of the tools she is using to reach those goals for the farm and for her family. Read more.


Illinois farmers fight erosion with cover crops. WQAD-TV reports that farmers are digging in for a hands-on battle against soil erosion in Rock Island County. Cover crops like oilseed radishes replenish the soil by depositing nutrients and protecting the land. Fall plantings go dormant in time for corn and soybeans. “Why would you want to leave a piece of ground bare when you can have something growing on it year round to keep it covered and protected?” asked Mark Jackson, a USDA specialist. Watch the report.

Video profile in soil health: If Kirk Brock had to go back to conventional farming, he says he would “just quit and go do something else.” He sees traditional conventional tillage farming as more of a “hope and prayer” than as a good management system. With his soil health-building no-till and cover crop system, Mr. Brock doesn’t have to worry as much about timely rainfall events. And if intense rainfall occurs, he knows he can hold that water on his hillsides and allow it to percolate into the soil profile for his crops to use later. Watch the two-minute video.


How healthy is your soil? If you'd like to find out for sure, take a soil sample and have it tested. It's a simple process that anyone can do! Here's how:

1. To take the sample, use a sampling tube (probe), spade, trowel, or long knife. Sample 6-8 inches deep. Discard any surface residue, thatch or stones.

2. Sample different areas of your field. From each distinct area take several cores or slices.

3. Combine the cores or slices in a bucket and mix well. Transfer one cup of the mixed sample to a soil sample or plastic bag.

4. Deliver the soil sample bag to your local testing facility.

The Clark County SWCD offers testing services. Samples may be dropped off at the SWCD office, 9508 Highway 62, Charlestown, IN, between the hours of 8 a.m. - 4 p.m., Monday-Friday. Samples received by Thursday of one week will have results and recommendations returned by the end of the following week. The SWCD also has soil probes similar to the one pictured at right, for loan. Please call (812) 256-2330, ext. 3, for more information.

how to use soil probe