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Importance of Cover Crops

The Importance of Cover Crops

Nifa Authors
Lori Tyler Gula, Senior Public Affairs Specialist

Cover crops—which are typically added to a crop rotation in between two commodity or forage crops—provide living, seasonal soil cover with a variety of on-farm benefits, such as increased soil moisture capacity, improved nutrient cycling, and weed suppression.

Cover crops also provide public benefits by reducing sediment loss, nutrient runoff and leaching; reducing flooding; and storing carbon in the soil. Land-grant Universities conduct research and educate landowners about this important conservation practice. Here are a few examples of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture-supported research and Extension:

Protecting Water and Soil in Nebraska

Nebraska producers are increasingly using cover crops to protect soil, build soil health, and retain nutrients. Producers often look to Nebraska Extension at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for information on managing these cover crops.

During 2018, more than 8,500 Nebraskans were directly reached by Water and Soil Protection team programming. Participants represented diverse interests across the state, including homeowners, producers, agribusiness, crop consultants, industry, landowners, K-12 students, and public agencies. Participants impacted by team programming manage or influence soil and water resources on over 2.8 million acres of both private and public lands, and almost 2 million head of livestock across the state.

Growing Organic Cover Crops Improves Kale Nutrients and Crop Yields

Organic kale and other organic produce are popular among consumers concerned with the nutritional quality and chemical safety of foods. Clemson Agricultural Experiment Station researchers conducted a study to determine the influence of organic cover crops on kale production and improved nutritional quality.

Clemson researchers found that organic kale grown following organic legume cover cropping systems contained more nutrients such as minerals, proteins, and carbohydrates and produced higher yields. In addition, Kale biomass production was found to increase following a ryegrass cover crop. Results of this study could prove profitable for South Carolina farmers adopting organic farming practices in response to consumer preferences.

New Calculators Help Farmers Assess Nutrient Load and Value of Cover Crops

Farmers are always looking for ways to adjust their operations to make them more successful. University of Vermont Extension developed two analysis tools, Whole Farm Mass Nutrient Balance and Cover Crop Economics Calculators, provide a modern way for farmers to assess total nutrient load of their farm and realize the financial benefit of using cover crops, even if it does not show up in their bottom line directly or immediately.

The Whole Farm Mass Nutrient Balance Calculator gives farmers the information they need to figure out the main source of phosphorus importation onto the farm, which they can use to adjust their purchasing power accordingly. For many farmers, the Cover Crops Economics Calculator can be used as a tool to justify the good work they are already doing. By ascribing a monetary value to cover crops, farmers may be more likely to expand acres under cover crops and espouse the good virtues of cover crops, encouraging other farmers to plant more acres.


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