Using Cover Crops Correctly Can Improve Field Health for Vegetable Crops

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Posted: Monday, February 15, 2016 8:03 pm

AMES, Iowa -- Planting short duration cover crops can provide multiple benefits to growers who employ them in their fields. Cover crops can improve soil and water conservation efforts, organic matter input, nitrogen fixation, weed suppression and bio-fumigation, providing not only better yields but a healthier environment.

Techniques of proper planting and termination, advantages and challenges of specific crops and cover crop species are discussed in a new Iowa State University Extension and Outreach publication titled Short Duration Cover Crops for Vegetable Production Systems.

The publication is authored by Ajay Nair, Iowa State assistant professor of horticulture and extension vegetable production specialist, and Ray Kruse, agriculture specialist in agronomy, and is available online at the Extension Store.

A short duration cover crop is one that is grown or managed for a short period of time, usually 45 to 60 days.

"Cover crops allow growers to keep their production system sustainable for years to come," said Nair. "Using the correct crop during these short periods helps to increase soil organic matter, improves soil structure and aggregate stability, enhances soil biology and prevents soil erosion."

Iowa State research has shown the benefit of using cover crops in weed suppression, with buckwheat, oats, cowpea and sorghum-sundangrass all significantly reducing weed biomass in areas of use. Cover crops also help improve nutrient cycling in the soil and reduce nutrient leaching.

"Hopefully producers will begin to see growing cover crops as a main crop, not an afterthought," said Nair. "By improving soil structure and health through the use of cover crops, growers can keep their soil and production system sustainable."

While research clearly shows the benefits of using cover crops, choosing the correct cover crop species requires careful thought. Factors such as growing season, environment and soil properties all need to be considered before selecting the cover crop to be planted.

The publication also discusses seeding methods and termination of the cover crop once it has achieved its intended purpose. An examination of common cover crops and their advantages and challenges is also included.

SOURCE: Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

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