It is no secret that Florida’s soils are less than ideal from both a nutrient and production standpoint; finding ways to maximize soil health will have production benefits as well as environmental benefits. Utilizing cover crops is a great way to increase forage yield, reduce the need for concentrates, and generate organic matter within the soil.
Naturally, Florida’s soils have a low water holding capacity due to the sandy make-up which creates extensive space between particles and an inability to retain water. This leads to a need for large-scale irrigation and water use. Finding ways to increase the water holding capacity will save water and improve production.
Soil organic matter (OM) is the other crucial component of a healthy, fertile soil profile. Increasing the OM of the soil will enhance the ability of the soil to hold macronutrients, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. The micronutrients like, copper, iron, and zinc bind with the OM and become more available for the crop to use. Organic matter will also increase the water holding capacity of the soil.
Planting cover crops will aid in controlling weeds by not allowing them a chance to establish. The cover crop will compete for limited resources (sunlight, water, nutrients) and ultimately out compete the weeds. Once perennial crops become dormant and the sandy soils are exposed, the fight against erosion can be a hard battle; keeping a vegetative cover via a winter annual can help lessen erosion.
Picking the right cover crop can be tricky, be sure to pick a crop based on your production needs (soil protection, nitrogen production, herbage). The two main types of cover crops are annual crops, those that last for a season and perennial crops, those that will last for many seasons. Annuals are suited for either winter or summer growing seasons and can be grasses or legumes. Sometimes planting more than one variety can help maximize herbage production while also complementing each other with the use of nutrients.
Contact your local Extension Agent for help choosing a cover crop that best suits your production needs.