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The value of cover crops

Barley, soybeans and other cover crops grow in a barren patch of a sunflower field belonging to Doug Toussaint on Thursday, September 1, 2016. Nick Nelson/Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Cover crops are drawing greater interest from Upper Midwest farmers. Emily Evans says all producers, both organic and conventional, can benefit from incorporating cover crops into their farming operation.

"There are a lot of reasons to use cover crops," said Evans, a Lamberton, Minn.-based researcher with University of Minnesota Extension.

Evans spoke spoke Feb. 1 at the Best of the Best in Wheat and Research seminar in Grand Forks, N.D. The one-day event was sponsored by the North Dakota State University and Minnesota extension services, as well as several Minnesota and North Dakota commodity groups. About 200 people attended.

Cover crops are grown primarily to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale.

Most of Evans' research has been aimed at helping organic producers. They need to increase their soil fertility and weed control without chemicals, and cover crops can help them do so, she said.

Some conventional farmers wonder if they need the "organic premium" — or a higher price for organically produced crops — to justify planting cover crops. But cover crops provide conventional producers with the potential to reduce input costs, as well as offering long-term benefits, she said.

Cover crops take nitrogen (an essential fertilizer) from the soil and fix it in the soil, alleviate soil compaction, reduce erosion and help with biofumigation (harnessing the natural chemical agents of plants to suppress weeds and pests), among other benefits to conventional farmers, she said.

All the expert presentations at the Best of the Best event, including Evans', were expected to be available Feb. 3, at

Evans suggested that farmers who want to learn more about cover crops look at material from SARE, or the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education.