Answer: Cover crops could be considered the backbone of any annual cropping system that seeks to be sustainable. There are several ways to use cover crops, each delivering specific benefits for your crops or soil.
A cover crop is any crop grown to provide soil cover, regardless of whether it is later incorporated. Cover crops are grown primarily to prevent soil erosion by wind and water. "Green manuring" involves the soil incorporation of any field or forage crop while green or soon after flowering, for the purpose of soil improvement.
Cover crops and green manures can be annual, biennial, or perennial herbaceous plants grown in a pure or mixed stand during all or part of the year. In addition to providing ground cover and, in the case of a legume, fixing nitrogen, they also help suppress weeds and reduce insect pests and diseases. When cover crops are planted to reduce nutrient leaching following a main crop, they are often termed "catch crops."
A living mulch is a cover crop that is interplanted with an annual or perennial cash crop. Living mulches suppress weeds, reduce soil erosion, enhance soil fertility, and improve water infiltration. Examples of living mulches in annual cropping systems include overseeding hairy vetch into corn at the last cultivation, no-till planting of vegetables into subclover, sweetclover drilled into small grains, and annual ryegrass broadcast into vegetables. Living mulches in perennial cropping systems are simply the grasses or legumes planted in the alleyways between rows in orchards, vineyards, Christmas trees, berries, windbreaks, and field nursery trees to control erosion and provide traction.
The benefits of cover crops and green manures are listed below.
Organic Matter and Soil Structure
A major benefit obtained from green manures is the addition of organic matter to the soil. During the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, compounds are formed that are resistant to decomposition—such as gums, waxes, and resins. These compounds—and the mycelia, mucus, and slime produced by the microorganisms—help bind together soil particles as granules, or aggregates. A well-aggregated soil tills easily, is well aerated, and has a high water infiltration rate. Increased levels of organic matter also influence soil humus. Humus—the substance that results as the end product of the decay of plant and animal materials in the soil—provides a wide range of benefits to crop production.
Nitrogen production from legumes is a key benefit of growing cover crops and green manures. Nitrogen accumulations by leguminous cover crops range from 40 to 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre. The amount of nitrogen available from legumes depends on the species of legume grown, the total biomass produced, and the percentage of nitrogen in the plant tissue. Cultural and environmental conditions that limit legume growth—such as a delayed planting date, poor stand establishment, and drought—will reduce the amount of nitrogen produced. Conditions that encourage good nitrogen production include getting a good stand, optimum soil nutrient levels and soil pH, good nodulation, and adequate soil moisture.
Soil Microbial Activity
A rapid increase in soil microorganisms occurs after a young, relatively lush green manure crop is incorporated into the soil. The soil microbes multiply to attack the freshly incorporated plant material. During microbial breakdown, nutrients held within the plant tissues are released and made available to the following crop. Factors that influence the ability of microorganisms to break down organic matter include soil temperature, soil moisture, and carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio of the plant material.
In addition to nitrogen from legumes, cover crops help recycle other nutrients on the farm. Nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (KB), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), sulfur (S), and other nutrients are accumulated by cover crops during a growing season. When the green manure is incorporated, or laid down as no-till mulch, these plant-essential nutrients become slowly available during decomposition. Dr. Greg Hoyt developed a method for estimating nutrient accruement by cover crops in order to reduce the soil test recommendation of fertilizer for the following crop.
The extensive root systems of some cover crops are highly effective in loosening and aerating the soil. In Australian wheat experiments, the taproots of a blue lupine cover crop performed like a "biological plow" in penetrating compacted soils. When cover crops are planted after a subsoiling treatment, they help extend the soil-loosening effects of the deep tillage treatment.
Weeds flourish on bare soil. Cover crops take up space and light, thereby shading the soil and reducing the opportunity for weeds to establish themselves. The soil-loosening effect of deep-rooting green manures also reduces weed populations that thrive in compacted soils.
The primary purpose of a non-legume green manure—such as rye, millet, or sudangrass—is to provide weed control, add organic matter, and improve soil tilth. They do not produce nitrogen. Thus, whenever possible, annual grain or vegetable crops should follow a legume green manure to derive the benefit of farm-produced nitrogen.
Soil and Water Conservation
The soil conservation benefits provided by a cover crop extend beyond protection of bare soil during non-crop periods. The mulch that results from a chemically or mechanically killed cover crop in no-till plantings increases water infiltration and reduces water evaporation from the soil surface. Soil cover reduces soil crusting and subsequent surface water runoff during rainy periods.
Pest Management Benefits of Cover Crops
In addition to the soil-improving benefits, cover crops can also enhance many pest-management programs. Ecologists tell us that stable natural systems are typically diverse, containing many different types of plants, arthropods, mammals, birds, and microorganisms. Growing cover crops adds diversity to a cropping system. In stable systems, serious pest outbreaks are rare because natural controls exist to automatically bring populations back into balance.
Farmers and researchers in several locations have observed and documented increased beneficial insect numbers associated with cover crops. The cover crops provide pollen, nectar, and a physical location for beneficial insects to live while they search for pest insects.
Conservation tillage proves a better option than tilling because it leaves more crop residue on the surface to harbor the beneficial insects. Strip tilling or no-tillage disturbs a minimum of the existing cover crop that harbors beneficial insects. Cover crops left on the surface may be living or in the process of dying. At either of these stages, they protect beneficials. Once the main crop is growing, the beneficials move onto it. By having the cover crop in place early in the growing season, the population of beneficials is much higher sooner in the growing season than would be the case if only the main crop were serving as habitat for the beneficials.
For more information on cover crops and green manures, see ATTRA publication Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=288. This publication summarizes the principal uses and benefits of cover crops and green manures. Brief descriptions and examples are provided for winter cover crops, summer green manures, living mulches, catch crops, and some forage crops. To impart a sense for the importance of these practices in sustainable farming, the publication summarizes the effect of cover crops and green manures on organic matter and soil structure, nitrogen production, soil microbial activity, nutrient enhancement, rooting action, weed suppression, and soil and water conservation. Management issues addressed include vegetation management, limitations of cover crops, use in crop rotations, use in pest management, and economics of cover crops. A selection of print and Web resources are provided for further reading.
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