Why you should not let your land go uncultivated: advantages of cover cropping over fallowing

Cover crops protect the soil during periods when the field is not in use for crop production. (Artur Roman/Pexels)


Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that focuses on rebuilding soil health, promoting biodiversity, and reducing the use of synthetic inputs. Regenerative agriculture aims to restore the natural ecosystem functions of the land by enhancing soil organic matter, improving soil structure, and promoting the growth of beneficial microorganisms. Cover cropping and fallowing are two practices that can be used in regenerative agriculture to achieve these goals.

READ: Regenerative agriculture may be the answer to degrading soil conditions

Cover cropping is a farming technique that utilizes certain crops with the primary purpose of covering the soil rather than generating income and profits. These crops are usually grown during the off-season or after the main crop has been harvested. The most common cover crops in the Philippines are legumes such as mungbean and cowpea. Cover cropping is an effective way to maintain and improve soil health, and it has become increasingly popular in sustainable agriculture practices.

Fallowing is a land management practice that involves leaving farmland idle or without crops for a period of time in order to allow the land to regenerate and recover its fertility. Fallowing is a strategy to manage soil fertility, as soil nutrients can become depleted over time because of the continuous cultivation of land without rest or replenishment. By leaving the land to fallow for a period, it allows natural processes to replenish soil nutrients and improve soil health.

Cover cropping and fallowing are both practices that aim to improve soil health and productivity.  However, cover cropping may be a more sustainable and beneficial practice than fallowing for these reasons:

Soil health

Cover crops improve soil health by adding organic matter, improving soil structure, and promoting healthy soil microbial communities. One of the main ways that cover cropping helps in the conservation of nutrients is by reducing soil erosion. When soil is left exposed, it can be easily washed away by rain and wind, taking important nutrients with it. By growing cover crops, soil erosion can be greatly reduced, as the plant roots hold the soil in place and the plant canopy helps minimize the force of raindrops hitting the soil.

Cover crops also help in nutrient conservation by improving soil structure and increasing organic matter content. As cover crops grow, they take up nutrients from the soil, and when they are terminated and left to decompose, the nutrients are released back into the soil, making them available for the next crop. Cover crops also help increase soil organic matter, adding nutrients to the soil. Organic matter also improves soil structure, allowing for better water infiltration and nutrient uptake.

In contrast, fallowing can lead to soil erosion and reduced soil fertility. This is because fields left to fallow fields may lack the protective cover of vegetation, making the soil vulnerable to erosion by wind and water. Soil erosion is the process of the wearing away and removal of soil by natural forces or human activities. This erosion can wash away valuable topsoil and nutrients, leaving the soil less fertile than before.

 Weed suppression

Cover crops compete with weeds for resources such as water, nutrients, and sunlight. By growing vigorously using these resources, cover crops can outcompete and reduce the growth of weeds.  While some cover crops have tall and dense foliage that can shade out weeds, preventing them from getting enough sunlight to grow. Moreover, certain cover crops, such as sunn hemp, produce chemicals that can inhibit the growth of weeds. These chemicals, called allelochemicals, are released into the soil and can prevent weed seeds from germinating or stunt the growth of nearby weeds.

Compared to fallowing, leaving the field with no crops can lead to an increase in weed populations as crops are not actively suppressing them.

Pest management

Cover crops can provide habitat for beneficial insects that prey on crop pests, reducing the need for synthetic pesticides. Cover crops can attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, which feed on and control harmful insect pests. These insects can help to reduce the populations of pest species naturally. With fallowing, pest populations may increase because they are not being controlled by any pest management practices.

READ: Introduction to Integrated Pest Management, Part 4: Biological management practices for pest control


Cover crops provide a diverse and complex habitat for a range of beneficial organisms such as pollinators, birds, and beneficial insects. These organisms play a crucial role in controlling pests, improving soil health, and promoting crop yields. Furthermore, cover crops can enhance soil health by increasing soil organic matter, improving soil structure, and suppressing soil-borne diseases. Healthy soils can support a wide range of microorganisms and other organisms that contribute to overall biodiversity. In fallowing, biodiversity is reduced since there are no crops to support a diverse ecosystem.

Given these, cover cropping is a more sustainable and beneficial practice than fallowing as it improves soil health, suppresses weeds and pests, and enhances biodiversity.

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