Learn how you can use cover crops to slow erosion, boost soil health, scavenge and hold nutrients, improve water quality, and control pests, weeds, and diseases. This publication details the opportunities for cover crops in conventional arable rotations. “Summer Cover Crops.” North Carolina State University. Benefits of Cover Crops Legumes also help prevent erosion, support beneficial insects and pollinators, and they can increase the amount of organic matter in soil, although not as much as grasses. In Michigan, for example, some potato growers report that two years of radish improves potato production and lowers pest control costs. Depending on your conditions—including soil residual nitrogen status—you may not be able to reduce your nitrogen fertilizer inputs for the subsequent crop, particularly in the first few years of cover cropping. Cover crops maintain and improve soil fertility in a number of ways. Compared to pure stands of legumes or non-legumes, cocktails usually produce more overall biomass and nitrogen, tolerate adverse conditions, increase winter survival, provide ground cover, improve weed control, attract a wider range of beneficial insects and pollinators, and provide more options for use as forage. SHP supports healthy cover crop adoption that is sustainable and works for the farmer. Cover crops are tilled under in late winter or early spring. Cover crops can help improve soil quality, save manure nitrogen or fix nitrogen for the following crop, supply rescue forage and can lead to improved ground and surface water quality. “Cover Crops.” University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Attracting Birds.” National Wildlife Federation. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Cover crops protect water quality by curbing soil erosion and reducing nitrogen losses by an average of 48%. Once a cover crop is fully grown, or the farmer wants to plant in an area that has a cover crop, the conventional technique is to mow down the cover crop and allow it to dry. “Building Soils for Better Crops, Third Edition.” Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. The roots of cover crops also provide structure to the soil to prevent compaction from the weight of snow and beating rains. A cover crop is a crop of a specific plant that is grown primarily for the benefit of the soil rather than the crop yield. Because each root of the cover crop creates pores in the soil, cover crops help allow water to filter deep into the ground. Consult the many resources available, talk to other farmers, and start with small plots as you fine-tune your system. 1918-1928., doi:10.1094/PDIS-07-16-1067-RE. The Agriculture Department of the University of Tennessee defines a cover crop “as a living ground cover that is planted to protect the soil…it may be planted into or after a main crop and killed before the next crop is planted.” Finally, something simple to understand. After it is dry, the remaining organic matter is usually tilled into the soil. Learn more in the SARE bulletin Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops. In the US, quite a bit of research has gone into using daikon radish as a fall cover crop. Find examples of farmers using cover crops to combat insect pests and weeds in the Pest Management section of this topic room. Cover crops should be viewed as a long-term investment in improved soil health and farm management. They add organic matter, improve the soil’s texture and structure, improve the fertility, help prevent erosion and attract pollinating insects. To learn about other methods of attracting beneficial insects, read Agroecological Strategies to Enhance On-Farm Insect Pollinators from Managing Insects on Your Farm. A radish cover crop is a great choice for many reasons. One of the biggest challenges of cover cropping is to fit cover crops into your current rotations, or to develop new rotations that take full advantage of their benefits. Cover crops enhance biodiversity on the farm and contribute to a healthier ecosystem in many ways. Cover crops take very little labor while also adding organic material to your soil. Cover crops serve a number of functions in the garden. … Here we summarize some of it and provide an introduction to many of the benefits of growing cover crops. 380, 2014, pp. “Winter Cover Crops.” Louisiana State University. Provide nutrients to the soil, much like manure does. You can usually reduce your nitrogen fertilizer inputs following a legume, but they are not very good at scavenging nitrogen that is left over after your cash crops. A cover crop, also called "green manure," refers to any annual, perennial, or biannual plant that is grown as a monoculture or polyculture.This is often done in order to combat various sustainable agriculture conditions. 2010. There are 4 types of cover crops. They can begin to pay for themselves in the first year of use, or it may take a few years for them to lead to a net positive return. Help break disease cycles by reducing the amount of bacterial and fungal diseases in the soil. Cover crops add organic matter to the soil, and add nitrogen in a slow-release way that plants can handle, leading to less nitrogen volatilization (read: waste! Cover crops take up water (via evapotranspiration) and usually allow you onto the field earlier than if you did not have a cover crop growing. They provide habitat for soil life such as fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and critters like worms. It also gives weeds less opportunity to establish, meaning cleaner beds for sowing or planting in spring. If large amounts of nitrogen are left in the soil from the summer crop or due to a history of manure applications, non-legumes can scavenge upwards of 150 pounds per acre. Cover crops should be viewed as a long-term investment that gradually improve farm management in multiple areas. Christina Curell, cover crop and soil health educator at the Michigan State University Extension, said that farmers have used cover crops used since the 1950s to prevent erosion and strengthen soil. However, cocktails often cost more, can create too much residue, may be difficult to seed and generally require more complex management. A cover crop can improve the health of your soil, resulting in a significantly larger, healthier cash crop for the next growing season. Although seeding and management of cover crop mixes or “cocktails” can become more complicated, planting them allows you to attain multiple objectives at once. Boquet, Donald. These crops add fertility to the soil without chemical fertilizers via biological nitrogen fixation. A cover crop can offer a natural way to reduce soil compaction, manage soil moisture, reduce overall energy use, and provide additional forage for livestock. These types of crops are also used in landscaping to enhance the look of a property. What is a Cover Crop? The huge roots can penetrate compacted subsoil, and when the plants die from cold temperatures, the rotting radishes improve the soil. 101, 2017, pp. Moncada, Kristine M. "Risk Management Guide For Organic Producers." A cover crop is a closely-grown crop that grows to reduce soil erosion, improve soil texture and increase water availability rather than for the purpose of being harvested. Alternatively, if facing drought or practicing dryland farming, cover crops still help boost yields while being very efficient with water use. No one ought to try to grow mustard as a cover crop in 100ºF weather! According to an analysis of yield data collected in a national cover crop survey, farmers can expect a 3% increase in their corn yield and a 4.9% increase in soybeans after five consecutive years of cover crop use. While all cover crops provide many of these benefits, some species or “cocktails” (cover crop mixes) are better than others, depending on your specific objectives. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. Be sure to see the book, Managing Cover Crops Profitably and browse around this Cover Crop Topic Room for more information.