Protect Natural Resources

Protect Natural Resources

Protect Natural Resources

Cover Crop Use and Management

hairy vetch
Hairy vetch is a nitrogen-providing powerhouse, a cover crop that “fixes” significant atmospheric nitrogen for the subsequent crop.
– Photo by Rob Myers

Planting cover crops between cash crops provides a great opportunity for farmers and ranchers to diversify. In addition to improving soil quality, cover crops slow runoff, crowd out weeds, prevent nitrogen leaching, provide habitat for wildlife and beneficial organisms, and can even be grazed or harvested.

“Preventing erosion is perhaps the most obvious soil benefit of cover crops,” said Marianne Sarrantonio, a professor of sustainable crop production at the University of Maine, “but providing organic matter is a more long-term and equally important goal.” For more information about cover crops, see Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 2nd Edition, a detailed reference manual from the Sustainable Agriculture Network. (See “Resources")

Most farmers plant annual grasses or legumes as covers, sowing winter annuals in late summer or early fall to provide cover until the following spring. The grasses scavenge nitrogen and prevent its loss while the legumes add nitrogen to the system; mixing grasses and legumes optimizes rapid soil cover and overall soil improvement.

Although any fast-growing herbaceous plant has potential as a cover crop, seed cost or availability can be limiting. Other challenges include selecting a cover crop that will survive the winter, finding a method of low-cost seeding and developing an efficient way to kill or control the cover before planting the primary economic crop. Some tips for successful cover cropping include:

Choose covers that are easy to plant and establish and also easy – and affordable – to kill and control.
Satisfactory varieties should provide reliable and persistent ground cover and have no negative impact on the following economic crop – such as using up too much soil moisture or harboring pests.
When selecting a legume, make sure it has good ability to provide nitrogen.
To boost biomass accumulation or improve winter survival, some producers seed a cover crop before the previous cash crop has finished growing. You can overseed a cover crop with a planter early in the growth cycle of a select few crops – such as clover into wheat – and you can seed some other covers during the last cultivation.
For appropriate crops in your region, consult Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 2nd Edition (see “Resources").

Because killing or controlling cover crops is a key management consideration, many farmers favor spring oats for their ability to die reliably during cold winters. However, the longer a cover crop survives into the spring, the longer it curbs erosion or traps moisture, so other farmers select a cover that must be killed with herbicide or tilled in before they plant their summer cash crop. In Lancaster County, Pa., Steve Groff rolls down his jungle-like cover-crop mixtures of hairy vetch, rye and crimson clover with a Buffalo rolling stalk chopper before transplanting tomatoes into those 25 acres.

Some farmers prefer to suppress, rather than kill, the cover crop while the cash crop is getting established, then let the ground cover grow gradually as an understory crop. White Dutch clover, for example, provides erosion control, weed suppression, supplemental nitrogen and possible habitat for beneficial insects. This can only be done successfully with ample moisture. Don’t jeopardize a cash crop by allowing the intercrop to compete for available soil moisture!

Rotational Benefits

Whether farmers rotate their crops primarily for economic or environmental reasons, agro-ecosystems clearly benefit from a diversity of crops. Rotational crops curb erosion, improve soil structure, conserve soil moisture and help break up insect, disease and weed cycles. They also contribute soil nutrients: small-seeded legumes like alfalfa or sweet clover are an economically competitive nitrogen source with commercial fertilizer.

In the long-term Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial, launched in 1989, soybeans benefited from the so-called “positive rotation effect” when small grains were added to a traditional corn-soybean rotation. While the corn seemed to need only soybeans to maximize its performance, reduced disease pressure in the longer rotation bumped up soybean yields. Altogether, the expanded rotation returned $43 more per acre, on average, than the original rotation – and its income was more stable. The research was funded in part by a SARE grant. The randomized, replicated studies were conducted on two research farms – in Dane and Walworth counties – representing different climates and soil types.

In southeastern Minnesota, grower Andy Hart, using a SARE grant, provided $7-an-acre incentives to neighbors who wanted to try cover crops of oats, barley or winter rye after harvesting their peas and sweet corn. With most of southeastern Minnesota’s 35,000 acres of peas and sweet corn left open to wind and water erosion for up to 10 months each year, Hart was determined to find – and encourage planting of – a better rotation.

Not only did the participating neighbors continue using cover crops, but other farmers in the area began adopting the practice as well. “They see the advantage of cover crops,” said Hart. So does Lakeside Foods, a local canning company that is encouraging their use among growers.

NRCS agent Wendell Jones measuring residue
Rotations that maintain crop residue on the soil surface reduce erosion, conserve water and build soil organic matter. Using a kit, Wendell Jones, a district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, measures residue on an Iowa City, Iowa, farm.
– Photo by USDA-NRCS

Soil Benefits

Diverse rotations improve soil and, thus, crop yields. Rotations that keep crops or their residues in the ground longer provide more protection from wind and water erosion. Fields planted in small grains or hay are less vulnerable to erosion than those planted in row crops.

You can enhance the beneficial effects if you also reduce tillage. Surface residue moderates soil temperature and conserves soil moisture. Residue also builds more soil organic matter, which improves water-holding capacity and boosts populations of beneficial soil microorganisms. On the other hand, excessive tillage promotes erosion, dries soils and destroys soil structure as well as the food sources on which soil organisms depend.

In an Ohio State University study, a three-year reduced-tillage rotation of corn-soybean-wheat-hairy vetch compared favorably with the typical two-year corn-soybean system. Both were superior to the corn monoculture system, resulting in less soil erosion, less nitrate pollution and a better distribution of labor. The use of hairy vetch contributed at least 25 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the subsequent corn crop. The benefits of the three-year system can be attributed to a combination of factors, including greater diversity of crops, soil-building cover crops and small grains, and reduced tillage.

Farmers can use reduced-tillage practices in many rotational strategies. Excessive tillage promotes erosion, dries soils and destroys soil structure as well as the food sources and micro-niches on which beneficial soil organisms depend. Reduced tillage slows the turnover of nutrients, encourages diverse communities of beneficial insects and leaves temperature- and moisture-moderating quantities of crop residues on surfaces.

In Springerton, Ill., Ralph Upton received a SARE grant to test cover crops in his corn-soybean-wheat rotation. He wanted to learn whether cover crops like buckwheat, hairy vetch, rye, rye grass and sunnhemp would penetrate his compacted soil. Results have been promising. The rye grass, into which he plants corn or soybeans, put down roots 52 inches deep. The roots of his cereal rye, into which he plants soybeans, extend 48 inches below the soil surface. Upton also has measured his hairy vetch roots at 43 inches.

Comparing his fields to a neighbor’s, he found that a probe went 10 inches into his ground compared to just 3 inches next door. The benefits extend to his crops, too.

“We’re getting great root systems,” he said. “We had corn roots down 54 inches deep where we had the cover crop and our soybeans will go down 42-43 inches.”

With crops able to pull moisture from subsoils, Upton has seen yield increases of 3 to 6 bushels per acre, and he expects more benefits to come. “I think the benefits of this project will be very good in the long run,” he said.

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