The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education this week released a brief on cover crops in sustainable crop rotations, providing farmers and ranchers resources for establishing and maintaining cover crops within a rotation.
The brief covers the basics of cover crops and provides links to more in-depth information on the SARE website.
According to the document, which is available for free download, corn yields increased 9.6% when planted after a cover crop, compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops in a 2012 survey of 2,500 farmers. Similarly, soybean yields improved 11.6% following cover crops.
In the 2013 survey, farmers reported corn yields were 3.1% higher and soybean yields were 4.3% higher after cover crops.
Sections in the brief include cover crop selection and management, rotations, economics and cover crops in no-till.
According to SARE, the first step in developing a cover cropping program is determining goals. "While all cover crops provide many benefits, some species or "cocktails" (cover crop mixes) are better than others, depending on your specific objectives," the brief notes.
Some reasons for establishing a cover crop can include winter cover for retaining N, summer cover breaking soil compaction, improving soil or suppressing weeds.
Legumes, which includes clovers, vetch, peas, and beans, for example, can fix N on crops that follow while preventing soil erosion and supporting beneficial insects, SARE says. Non-legumes, like rye, wheat, barley, oats, and forage grasses, are better at suppressing weeds and controlling erosion. Non-legumes also handle excess nutrients well.
SARE recommends a mix of classic cover crops to provide more overall biomass and N while attracting more beneficial pests or pollinators. However, they usually cost more.
Finally, SARE recommends that farmers and ranchers develop a timeline and plan for seeding and terminating cover crops that meet objectives while fitting in profitable programs.
However, the economic returns of cover crops, SARE's report says, are sometimes difficult to predict. "Cover crops clearly improve overall soil health—usually within only a year or two, and increasingly over time—and generally help improve profitability over time, though the impact on your bottom line will vary," the report says.
The publication also offers links to more information on cover crops for organic farms, dryland farmers, no –till programs and more growing arrangements.
Thinking about a cover crop? Start with developing a plan. Download the FREE Cover Crops: Best Management Practices report today, and get the information you need to tailor a cover crop program to your needs.
Read the full brief, Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations, online.