Silver buckshot: a cover crop analogy for hunting season

I heard someone on the radio today say “there is no silver bullet, there’s silver buckshot.” The context was completely unrelated to farming, but I liked it and I was immediately reminded of cover cropping, farming in general, and the multi-pronged approach we need to create sustainable production methods. But then I thought: “Is it possible to gain precision (the bullet) and cast a broad net (the buckshot) at the same time?” The mixed metaphors are killing me!

Mixtures: the silver buckshot of cover crops

lancaster farmer

At the end of October, I was in Pennsylvania for the Cover Crop Solutions annual field day. I’ve mentioned before that we don’t endorse specific products or varieties–we encourage farmers to look around for seed!– but the folks at Cover Crop Solutions put on an inspiring field day every year to talk about soil health, cover crops, and even what farmers can do to improve stream health. One of the things I was struck by at the event this year is the ever-increasing interest in cover crop mixes.

winter covers

Mixture of grasses and legumes. Photo: Jan-Hendrick Cropp

Mixtures are the silver buckshot of cover cropping; by including species that offer different benefits and fill different functional niches, one can (ideally) reap multiple benefits and ensure that the mixture will perform well even under a variety of weather and soil conditions. But, like buckshot, you still have to aim! What are the benefits you’re trying to reap? This is where the precision part comes in. Through the use of cover crops that serve specific functions and, potentially, in specific spatial arrangements in the field, you can optimize benefits for your system.

Getting to know cover crops on their own is a great way to determine what might go well together in a mix. Sometimes at these field days I feel a little embarrased that I still have a bunch of monocultures and bicultures (the simplest two-way mix) growing in the field. Monocultures may be good for what you’re trying to do, and it is a great way to get to know a cover crop. Going to field days like this one are a great way to experience cover crops without having to grow them yourself. Many of these events have already happened, but the SARE calendar is a great way to stay informed about what’s going on.

Planning a mixture for precisely what you want

oat radish

Spatial arrangements of cover crops are a type of precision farming.

If you are ready to delve into mixtures, Charlie White at Penn State wrote a nice summary of how to think about and select the right cover crop mixture for your farm’s goals. November is the perfect time to start concocting cover crop plans for next year and sourcing seed. Don’t wait until next year to get inspired!

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