Cover Crop Innovation Center
New! We now have a new website for our project on winterkilled cover crops for no-till vegetable production: www.notillveggies.org. Please visit for blogs, photos and research updates.
Innovating with Cover Crops to Make Farming Better
Making the Land Pay 12 Months a Year.
Most farmers pay rent or taxes on the land 12 months a year. Yet many keep the land working for them only half the year. In terms of soil processes driven by growing roots and solar energy capture driven by plant leaves, a typical annual crop like corn is really using the soil and sun effectively - covering the land with green -- for only 3-4 months: June – July – August and part of September. Having only senescing crops, residues, weeds or nothing all on the land is a major waste of the farmer’s basic sun-soil-water resources. Cover crops can keep the soil humming for the other 7 to 8 months - accumulating organic matter, building soil structure, fueling the food web, capturing water and cycling nutrients.
Managing Plants to Improve Soils
Farmers are used to managing their soils to improve plant growth and crop yie3ld. That’s why they fertilize, till and apply limestone to soils. Cover crops turn this idea on its head, giving farmer opportunities to manage plant to improve the soil. Because cover crops are not removed in harvest, their above and below ground biomass adds a bounty of organic matter to feed the soil food web. But this only the beginning. Some cover crop roots can ameliorate subsoil compaction. Some cover crop canopies can suppress weed seed germination. If given a chance, some cover crops produce deep root systems that can bring up nutrients from 2 or more meters deep. With the right choice of cover crop, these nutrients can be released to feed the next cash crop.
Freeing Farmers to Create Diversity
Ecological diversity aboveground is intimately connected to diversity belowground. Farmers are usually constrained to grow only crops they can profitably sell. The market place may dictate only corn and soybeans. Cover crops can free farmers from the tyranny of the market—freeing them to plant a wide variety of species without regard to what they can sell. With the adoption of cover cropping a corn, a corn-soybean-wheat farm can go from three plant species to a dozen or more, leading to much more diverse and vigorous belowground workforce, improving soil structure, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling and disease suppression.
Treating Cover Crops like Cash Crops
A sure way to fail with cover crops is to treat them as an after-thought. Careful selection, precision planting, timely establishment, possible starter fertilizer or irrigation will all help assure cover crops that pay.
Protecting water and soil from degradation
In Maryland much of the attention on cover crops for the past decade has centered on State government programs that subsidize cover crop planting for the purpose of reducing pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. Indeed, nitrogen capture to reduce leaching and soil cover to reduce erosion are two of the main environmental benefits that cover crops can provide. If the nitrogen captured is recycled in a way that the farmer’s crops can use and the soil saved is left on the farmer’s field, both the farmer and the environment stand to gain. The idea has been picked up by the popular press.
We began researching Brassica cover crops back in 2000. Forage radish is a unique Brassica cover crop that can capture large amounts of nitrogen and other nutrients in in fall and release them again early in spring, while loosening compacted soils and effectively suppressing winter/early spring weeds. Nearly a decade of lessons learned from research are summarized here Forage Radish Extension Fact Sheet (.pdf). The Weil lab is one of the foremost research groups for radish cover crop science and management practice.
No-till, no-herbicide planting of early vegetables:
Spring vegetable planting is often delayed because soils are too cold to plant and too wet to drive on or till. Most winter cover crops (like rye or vetch) can aggravate this situation by keeping soils cooler and wetter in spring. In contrast, we have found that in early spring, the soil after winterkilled forage radish is essentially weed free, has very little residue, and is drier and warmer and ready to plant earlier than soils under most other cover crops or just winter weeds. There appears to be no need for tillage or herbicides before you can plant.
Under a grant from Northeast SARE, our team of research scientists, extension agents and farmers from Maryland to Maine are working to see if it is practical to plant early crops directly into this seedbed without tilling it first – and without spraying a burn-down herbicide, either. A few of the questions the project will be asking are:
- Will this work with conventional planters commonly used by small and medium-scale growers?
- Will early crops be able to use the nitrogen (and other nutrients) released by the radish?
- Will weeds be controllable once the crop is up?
- Will early no-till planting result in earlier or bigger harvests?
- How can a farmer best integrate this no-till technique into an overall vegetable cropping system?
For more information on no-herbicide no-till planting of early vegetables into a seedbed prepared by low-residue winter-killed cover crops, please visit the project website.