Cover Crops

The educational materials listed on this page are about Cover Crops.

What is a cover crop? A common definition of a cover crop is a plant that is used as part of a crop rotation to improve the soil, scavenge or add nutrients, smother weeds and as a tool for erosion control. Cover crops are not harvested, but are left in place in no-till farming or turned under, especially in organic farming. Another term for cover crops is green manures, especially when the crop residue is incorporated into the soil.

Cover crops can improve soil fertility by adding organic matter, and they help in nutrient management planning by adding nitrogen to soil or by taking up nutrients in soil after cash crop harvest. Winter cover crops are most common in corn and soybean grain production systems, while spring cover crops or summer cover crops can fit many vegetable production systems. Cover crops improve soil moisture, especially over time as soil organic matter and soil tilth are improved.

Cover crop cocktails are used by many farmers as a way to improve soil health. Cocktails or cover crop mixes usually include a grass cover crop such as cereal rye or annual ryegrass, a legume cover crop like crimson clover or hairy vetch, and sometimes a brassica cover crop like forage radish, sometimes called “tillage radish.” Cover crop benefits from cocktails are often greater than seeding a single cover crop species. Cover crop mixes contribute to pest control by attracting beneficial insects and they may increase weed control by providing more ground cover and leaving more crop residue on the soil surface. Some cover crops can mitigate plant disease by suppression soil pathogens. Cover crop cocktails also attract pollinators, including native pollinators.

Cover crop seed is increasingly available from seed companies. They may also be able to help you with information about cover crop selection as well as best timing and methods of planting cover crops.

Some SARE books will help you decide how and when to grow cover crops. Managing Cover Crops ProfitablyCrop Rotation on Organic Farms, and Building Soils for Better Crops are comprehensive guides or manuals. Another useful resource is the SARE topic brief Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations, which summarizes the usefulness of rotating cover crops in any cropping system. For organic farming, see the Organic Transitions business planning guide.

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image for video series on soil health principals and practices

Soil Health Principles and Practices Videos

Experienced farmers and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) provide information on managing and improving soil health. Farmers discuss practices such as cover cropping, and using mulch and compost to improve soil health.

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Building Soils for Better Crops

The fourth edition of Building Soils for Better Crops—enhanced and expanded—explains how to use ecological principles to build soil health and boost fertility, yields and overall sustainability.

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New “Cover Crops and Soil Health” Video from SARE

The newest episode of SARE’s “What is Sustainable Agriculture” animation series illustrates how producers can use cover crops to improve productivity and sustainability. In just a few short minutes, “Cover Crops and Soil Health” outlines how cover crops can build soil structure, protect water quality, suppress pests and improve a farm’s bottom line. Combining cover […]

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Smart Water Use on Your Farm or Ranch

As producers throughout the nation grow increasingly concerned about water scarcity, farmers, ranchers and agricultural educators are beginning to explore new, conservation-oriented approaches to water use.

Videos from the Field

SARE, in partnership with Cooking Up A Story, has produced a series of how-to videos showcasing production and marketing practices used by some of the nation’s most successful sustainable farmers and ranchers.

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Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

This production manual provides comprehensive guidance on conservation tillage systems for farms in the southeastern United States. It covers the core components of conservation tillage systems and includes both regional considerations and producer experiences.

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Free Fact Sheets Identify Broad Benefits of Cover Crops

Along with cutting costs and increasing crop productivity, cover crops provide various ecosystem services that benefit the environment both on and off the farm. For instance, adding cover crops to a rotation can significantly increase the portion of the year when living roots are present for soil organisms to feed on, which can have a […]

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Cover Crop Economics Report Now Available in Print

Cover Crops Offer Options in Wet Soil As more farmers across the nation begin to incorporate covers into their rotations, they find that this valuable conservation practice pays in more ways than one. Many farmers in states suffering from oversaturated fields that prevented or delayed planting are considering cover crops. To help farmers evaluate the […]

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When Do Cover Crops Pay? New USDA-SARE Report Addresses the Question

Farmers around the country are planting cover crops on millions of acres to protect and improve the soil, and the more that farmers use cover crops, the more they value this conservation practice. Cover Crop Economics, a new report published by USDA-SARE looks at the economics of cover crops to help farmers answer that big […]

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Cover Crop Economics

Cover crops can build soil health, control weeds, conserve moisture, provide grazing opportunities and more. But when do they start to pay for themselves? This analysis looks at the economics behind different management scenarios to determine if cover crops are likely to improve profitability in one, three or five years of use in corn and soybean rotations. 

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What is Soil Health?

Soil health plays an essential role in raising healthy, productive crops and livestock. With this interactive infographic, learn how practices such as cover crops, no-till, crop rotation and the integration of livestock work in concert to improve soil health.

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Using Flowering Insectary Borders to Boost Natural Enemies

Beneficial insects play an important role in managing insect pests and pollinating crops, but they struggle to thrive in and around farms that have low plant diversity and rely mainly on tillage. Routine soil disturbances and low plant diversity can mean fewer prey, shelter and plant-based resources available to support natural enemies, especially early in […]

article on ten ways cover crops enhance soil health

10 Ways Cover Crops Enhance Soil Health

Soil health is a hot topic these days, one that is justifiably receiving considerable attention from farmers and their farm advisors. This short fact sheet highlights some of the key ways that cover crops improve soil health by influencing the biological and physical characteristics of the soil.
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Improving Soil Health Through Cover Crops

Farmers around the country are discovering the power of cover crops to curb erosion and improve soil health. This video is from Pennsylvania, where a Penn State researcher and a grain farmer are partnering to spread the word.

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Recordings of General Sessions

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Basics of Cover Cropping

  • Introduction to Cover Crops
  • Selecting and Establishing Cover Crops
  • Terminating Cover Crops Plus Strategies for Planting a Cash Crop Following Cover Crops