OVERVIEW OF NONLEGUME COVER CROPS

Commonly used nonlegume cover crops include:

Nonlegume cover crops are most useful for:

  • Scavenging nutrients—especially N—left over from a previous crop 
  • Reducing or preventing erosion
  • Producing large amounts of residue and adding organic matter to the soil
  • Suppressing weeds

Annual cereal grain crops have been used successfully in many different climates and cropping systems. Winter annuals usually are seeded in late summer or fall, establish and produce good root and topgrowth biomass before going dormant during the winter, then green up and produce significant biomass before maturing. Rye, wheat, and hardy triticale all follow this pattern, with some relatively small differences that will be addressed in the section for each cover crop.

There is growing interest in the use of brassica and mustard cover crops due to their “biofumigation” characteristics. They release biotoxic chemicals as they break down, and have been found to reduce disease, weed and nematode pressure in the subsequent crop. Brassicas and mustards provide most of the benefits of other nonlegume cover crops, while some (forage radish, for example) are thought to alleviate soil compaction. See the chapter, Brassicas and Mustards, for more information.

Perennial and warm-season forage grasses also can serve well as cover crops. Forage grasses, like sod crops, are excellent for nutrient scavenging, erosion control, biomass production and weed control. Perennials used as cover crops are usually grown for about one year. Summer-annual (warm-season) grasses may fill a niche for biomass production and weed or erosion control if the ground would otherwise be left fallow (between vegetable crops, for example). Buckwheat, while not a grass, is also a warm-season plant used in the same ways as summer-annual grasses.

Nonlegume cover crops are higher in carbon than legume cover crops. Because of their high carbon content, grasses break down more slowly than legumes, resulting in longer-lasting residue. As grasses mature, the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N) increases. This has two tangible results: The higher carbon residue is harder for soil microbes to break down, so the process takes longer, and the nutrients contained in the cover crop residue usually are less available to the next crop.

So although grass cover crops take up leftover N from the previous crop, as they mature the N is less likely to be released for use by a crop grown immediately after the grass cover crop. As an example of this, think of how long it takes for straw to decompose in the field. Over time, the residue does break down and nutrients are released. In general, this slower decomposition and the higher carbon content of grasses can lead to increased soil organic matter, compared to legumes.

The carbon content and breakdown rate of brassicas is usually intermediate to grasses and legumes, depending on maturity when terminated. Brassicas and mustards can take up as much N as grass cover crops, but may release that N more readily to the subsequent crop.

Nonlegume cover crops can produce a lot of residue, which contributes to their ability to prevent erosion and suppress weeds while they are growing or when left on the soil surface as a mulch.

Although grasses and other nonlegumes contain some nitrogen in their plant tissues, they generally are not significant sources of N for your cropping system. They do, however, keep excess soil N from leaching, and prevent the loss of soil organic matter through erosion.

Management of nonlegumes in your cropping system may involve balancing the amount of residue produced with the possibility of tying up N for more than one season. Mixtures of grass and legume cover crops can alleviate the N-immobilization effect, can produce as much or more dry matter as a pure grass stand and may provide better erosion control due to the differences in growth habit. Suggestions for cover crop mixtures are found in the individual cover crop sections.

In addition to grasses, another summer non-legume is buckwheat, which is described in detail in its own section. Buckwheat is usually classed as a non-grass coarse grain. While it is managed like a quick-growing grain, it has a succulent stem, large leaves and white blossoms.

Annual Ryegrass

ANNUAL RYEGRASS Lolium multiflorum Also called: Italian ryegrass Type: cool season annual grass Roles: prevent erosion, improve soil structure and drainage, add organic matter, suppress weeds, scavenge nutrients Mix with: legumes, grasses See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. If you want to build soil without investing much in a cover…

Barley

BARLEY Hordeum vulgare Type: cool season annual cereal grain Roles: prevent erosion, suppress weeds, scavenge excess nutrients, add organic matter Mix with: annual legumes, ryegrass or other small grains See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. Inexpensive and easy to grow, barley provides exceptional erosion control and weed suppression in semi-arid…

Brassicas and Mustards

BRASSICAS AND MUSTARDS Type: Annual (usually winter or spring; summer use possible) Roles: Prevent erosion, suppress weeds and soilborne pests, alleviate soil compaction and scavenge nutrients Mix with: Other brassicas or mustards, small grains or crimson clover Species: Brassica napus, Brassica rapa, Brassica juncea, Brassica hirta, Raphanus sativus, Sinapsis alba See charts, pp. 66 to…

Buckwheat

BUCKWHEAT Fagopyrum esculentum Type: summer or cool-season annual broadleaf grain Roles: quick soil cover, weed suppressor, nectar for pollinators and beneficial insects, topsoil loosener, rejuvenator for low-fertility soils Mix with: sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, sunn hemp See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. Buckwheat is the speedy short-season cover crop. It establishes, blooms…

Cereal Rye

CEREAL RYE Secale cereale Also called: cereal rye, winter rye, grain rye Type: cool season annual cereal grain Roles: scavenge excess N, prevent erosion, add organic matter, suppress weeds Mix with: legumes, grasses or other cereal grains See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. The hardiest of cereals, rye can be…

Oats

OATS Avena sativa Also called: spring oats Type: cool season annual cereal Roles: suppress weeds, prevent erosion, scavenge excess nutrients, add biomass, nurse crop Mix with: clover, pea, vetch, other legumes or other small grains See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. If you need a low-cost, reliable fall cover that…

Sorghum Sudangrass

SORGHUM-SUDANGRASS HYBRIDS Sorghum bicolor x S. bicolor var. sudanese Also called: Sudex, Sudax Type: summer annual grass Roles: soil builder, weed and nematode suppressor, subsoil loosener Mix with: buckwheat, sesbania, sunnhemp, forage soybeans or cowpeas See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids are unrivaled for adding organic matter to…

Winter Wheat

WINTER WHEAT Triticum aestivum Type: winter annual cereal grain; can be spring-planted Roles: prevent erosion, suppress weeds, scavenge excess nutrients, add organic matter Mix with: annual legumes, ryegrass or other small grains See charts, pp. 66 to 72, for ranking and management summary. Although typically grown as a cash grain, winter wheat can provide most…