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Sustainable solutions: cover crops

Oats can be used in breads, granola, and many other items (don’t forget animal feed!), but they also make a great “cover crop”.

A cover crop is a sustainable solution for crop management with all kinds of benefits: planting a cover crop helps manage soil fertility, soil quality, weeds, pests, and disease. It also reduces soil erosion. Cover crop recipes vary (the picture for this post shows a mix of oats, clover, vetch, radish, and turnip), but oats are a key ingredient.

Farmers typically plant their cover crop after the crop growing in the field (usually corn or wheat) has been harvested, or is close to being harvested. Once germinated, the crop grows quickly and covers the ground. The “cover” restricts weed growth and soil erosion, while increasing soil fertility and suppressing pests and disease. When winter comes, frost kills the cover crop, allowing it to slowly break down into the soil. As the crop breaks down, it puts nutrients back into the soil that otherwise could have eroded away. In the spring, farmers often don’t even need to till the remnants of the cover crop; usually, they can plant their seeds directly into the ground.

Oat seed is easily available for cover cropping, and the cost for the seed is reasonably inexpensive, which makes oats a great selection for cover cropping. In some cropping systems, oats work well alone as a cover crop, but in others they might be mixed with other crops that have different properties to make the most out of the cover crop application.