Oklahoma Cover Crop Field Day Showcases the Importance of Healthy Soil


As part of our efforts to raise awareness of the many important benefits of healthy soil, I traveled to a cover crop field day at Redlands Community College in El Reno, Oklahoma, several weeks ago. Healthy soil benefits all - it is more productive, reduces production costs and improves profits for farmers, protects water quality and ecosystems, and provides habitat for wildlife, among many other benefits.

While we sponsored the field day, I made the trip to Oklahoma because I wanted to talk with farmers and see the winter cover crops firsthand. It's important to me to personally see and understand how our work can benefit farmers across our great country. Over 100 local farmers, students, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and other individuals interested in soil health attended the event.

Redlands is fairly unique as far as community colleges go because it has an active agricultural research department that has planted demonstration field plots with cover crops. Field days provide an important opportunity for farmers to get the latest information about developments in research, technology, and farming practices.

The morning started off with two exciting talks by agricultural experts. Dr. Fred Provenza gave a thought-provoking talk on the nutritional benefits of diverse diets for both humans and animals. Dr. Provenza really made a great case for why farmers should plant a variety of cover crops--not only does this diversity benefit the soil by enriching it with nutrients and rich organic matter, it also provides variety for livestock forage. Like humans, animals are happiest and healthiest when they can eat different plants, which allows their bodies to receive a well-balanced set of nutrients. Dr. Hailin Zhang, a professor of soil science, closed the morning session with a presentation on the latest soil health tests available to farmers.

Over lunch, Jimmy Emmons, a farmer from western Oklahoma shared his unique perspective, having started planting cover crops on his farm just a few years ago. Since he started using covers, Jimmy has seen tremendous benefits on his land. There has been a dramatic increase in soil organic matter and significant differences in soil temperature and moisture between plots planted with cover crops and those without cover crops. To reduce costs, Jimmy also has adopted rotational grazing so that his cattle graze on cover crops. He is also exploring other opportunities to further diversify operations, including planting sunflowers and pollinator strips. In fact, Jimmy repeatedly referenced the diversified system that Gabe Brown - a NRDC Growing Green Award winner - uses on his farm in North Dakota.

One of Jimmy's key messages was that no two farms are alike so what works for one farmer may not work for another. He also urged his fellow farmers to focus less on yield and more on maximizing profits. By building soil health and planting forage cover crops, farmers can reduce the cost of fertilizers, feed, and other inputs that require them to maintain high yields in order to stay profitable. Reducing input costs allows farmers to maintain or even increase profits without increasing yield.


After hearing the inspiring talks inside, we spent the afternoon outside looking at the cover crops in the demonstration fields. While it was extremely windy, I was able to see the turnips, radishes, triticale, oats, wheat and rye planted in the fields.

This field trip (no pun intended) affirmed my faith in the importance of our soil health work. By providing additional incentives for farmers to plant cover crops, such as reduced crop insurance premiums, we can help to make soil vibrant and full of life once again and provide innumerable benefits to farmers, our natural resources, and wildlife in the process.