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.

Spring-Grazing Cover Crops with Nebraska’s Knuth Farms

When a fourth-generation farm in Mead, Nebraska began to diversify their primarily cash crop operation in 2012, they gave some thought to cover crops and livestock. Knuth Farms didn’t want to buy cattle or become beef producers, but they did want to diversify their income stream, capture some of the soil benefits of cover crops, […]

Incorporating Cover Crops in North Dakota

In a short growing season like North Dakota's, effectively using cover crops can seem like a challenge. Establishing a specific on-farm goal is key to utilizing cover crops successfully. Getting familiar with and then fine-tuning approaches is important to achieve desired outcomes. In this publication, NDSU soil health researchers, Abbey Wick, Caley Gasch, and Marisol Berti provide a starting point.

Iowa Farmers Seek Sustainability with Cover Crops and No-Till

In 2002, a $6,500 SARE grant funded an idea for a new tool at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The tool was a roller-crimper, a steel drum with blades that was mounted to a tractor and used to roll down cover crops. The idea was that the mat of dead cover crops would act as mulch, which researchers hoped no-till farmers […]

Cover Crop-based Reduced Tillage for Fall Production of Cabbage,Cauliflower and Broccoli Using a Roller-Crimper and No-Till Planting Aid

Cover crops can reduce erosion, improve soil health, slow weeds, enhance nutrient and moisture availability, control pests, and offer other benefits to vegetable producers. After vegetable grower, Thomas Ruggieri, planted cover crops on his farm in rural Clay County, Missouri in 2004, he noticed dramatic improvement in soil fertility and plant health. Ruggieri and Rebecca […]

Economics of Grazing and Haying Cover Crops in North Central Kansas

Grown on an estimated 10 million acres across the country, cover crops are becoming an indispensable part of crop rotations. To maintain this momentum, the development of reliable information at the local level—how to craft a diversified rotation that pays—needs to keep pace with growth in farmers’ interest. That is what motivated Josh Roe to […]

Illinois Farmer Builds Precision Seeder to Maximize Cover Crop Advantage

Ralph “Junior” Upton is no novice when it comes to no-till and cover crops. His grain farm in the northeast corner of Hamilton county Illinois is 100% no-till with 1,800 acres of corn, beans, and wheat, and approximately 1,200 acres in cover crops. Upton has been farming more than 50 years, and the farm has […]

Cover Crop Termination

Farmers use cover crops to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity on their farms. Although cover crops can be partially grazed or used as forage, they are usually terminated before planting production crops. While row crop producers tend to prefer using herbicides to terminate, most vegetable/horticulture crop producers employ tillage as their primary means of termination. Some organic no-till producers use roller-crimpers to kill the cover crop and leave the mulch on the soil surface to conserve water. NCR-SARE has supported various research projects that have explored the advantages and limits of various cover crop termination strategies.

Utilizing Cover Crops to Increase Productivity, Health and Vigor on Tame Grass Pasture

Donnie Feiring owns and operates Feiring’s Cattle Co. in Beach, ND, a 120-head registered Black Angus cow calf operation. They also run 35 head of commercial yearling heifers. Feiring wanted to improve the health, vigor and productivity of 50 acres of tame grass pasture – tame pastures are cultivated fields planted with introduced (non-native) grass […]

Adapting Cover Crops to Northern Climate Conventional Cropping Systems

Northeast Minnesota is home to a large beef cow-calf sector, several dairy farms, and an increasing amount of cash grain farming. In each of these types of operations, annual cultivation of corn, soybeans, oats, and barley is common.  Annual cultivation of these crops can lead to high rates of nutrient leaching and soil erosion, decreased […]

Evaluating the Roller-Crimper for Cover Crops in Corn and Soybean Terraced Ground

In northwest Missouri, a practice known as terracing is used to prevent ditches. Michael Willis, a beginning farmer in northwest Missouri, says that cover crops can reduce the need for terraces, but terraces still prove to be important to prevent ditch formation during the transitional phase from traditional no-till to no-till with cover crops.  Willis […]

Improving Pasture Quality with Cover Crops in North Dakota

Donnie and Trisha Feiring own and operate Feiring’s Cattle Company in Beach, North Dakota, a 120-head registered Black Angus cow calf operation. They also run 35 head of commercial yearling heifers. Without a lot of machinery on the ranch, the Feirings tend to think outside of the box when it comes to operational concerns. In […]

Scaling Up

Perkins’ Good Earth Farm is a small family farm that operates on 19 acres. They currently grow only one-quarter acre of organic garlic but hope to increase their productivity in this area by 50 percent. Two major challenges in achieving this goal are the cost of additional labor and worker comfort during planting and harvesting. […]

Producers and Researchers Collaborate to Improve Soil Health in North Dakota

Soil—and whole farms—have been renewed through soil-improving practices like cover crops and no till. In the semiarid plains of western North Dakota, a team of producers and researchers are working to boost soil health for improved yield stability, farm income, and natural resource health of farms. The Southwest North Dakota Soil Health Project is a […]

Cover Crops

Cover crops can slow erosion, improve soil, smother weeds, enhance nutrient and moisture availability, help control many pests, and bring a host of other benefits to farms across the country. NCR-SARE has supported projects by researchers, producers, and educators who are using this time-tested method of revitalizing soil, curbing erosion, and managing pests.

Video: Cover Crop SmartMix Calculator

SARE grantees and brothers, Keith and Brian Berns, have a cover-crop seed business, and have created a SmartMix Calculator, an online spreadsheet that calculates seed quantities and cost, carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N), nitrogen-fixation potential and other factors for mixes of nearly 40 cover-crop species, including legumes, brassicas, grasses and broadleaf crops.

SARE Cover Crops Webinars

As part of the Missouri SARE State Program, Debi Kelly hosted two webinars on Cover Crops in fall 2012. Presenters included Charles Ellis, a Natural Resource Engineer with the Lincoln County University of Missouri Extension Center, and Rich Hoormann, an Agronomy Specialist with Montgomery County University of Missouri Extension Center.