Annie Dee believes fervently that if her family doesn’t practice sustainability, they won’t stay in the business of farming.

“We read and hear a lot about sustainable agriculture, but it’s not a new concept,” said Dee, speaking at the East-Central Alabama Row Crops Workshop in Shorter.

“Financially, we’ll be put out of business if we’re not sustainable.”

For Dee River Ranch, a family farm located on 10,000 acres near the Alabama-Mississippi state line near Aliceville, Ala., cover crops plays a vital role in sustainability.

“We use a lot of cover crops in our operation and they have made a huge difference,” says Dee.

“On our farm, I’ve seen the soil’s organic matter go from one to three or four, and we’ve gotten up to as high as five. I think cover crops really can change the soil.”

Dee is a sixth-generation farmer and one of 12 siblings who own Dee River Ranch, where the crop rotation includes corn, wheat, sunflowers and soybeans.

Growing cover crops is only one component of a sustainability system that also includes no-till production and crop diversity.

“No-till will improve your soil’s structure, it’ll reduce soil compaction, and it’ll increase the number of earthworms in the soil,” says Dee.

“Crop diversity also is important, rather than planting the same crop in the same ground year after year. If you’re switching to low or no-till, it’ll increase your earthworm populations. And when that happens, they get into the soil and break it up, giving the roots some place to go.”

Disking the soil, she adds, will create a hardpan.

“If you quit tilling, it’ll allow the roots of the cover crops to go down and help to break up the soil,” says Dee.

Cover crops offer numerous benefits, including removing the amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, she says. “It’ll increase the amount of organic matter and sequester it into your field soil. In addition, it’ll keep nutrients in the soil rather than lose them to erosion and leaching.

“Cover crops will help preserve moisture. And in the winter, during times of heavy rainfall, they’ll take moisture out of the ground.

“The soil is much wetter where we haven’t been using cover crops because they’re using rainfall that comes during the winter.”