Southern Cover Crop Conference Fact Sheets
Researchers, farmers, Extension specialists, and natural resource personnel from across the Southern region gathered in North Carolina summer 2016 to learn about and discuss cover crops at the Southern Cover Crop Conference. The event, held at the University of Mount Olive and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, served as a forum to discuss new research, challenges for implementing cover crops, and solutions to those challenges. Over 45 speakers covered topics ranging from economics to nutrient management to equipment. Field demonstrations showed innovative cover crop use and management in cotton, corn, soybean and vegetable production.
The following fact sheets were generated from the workshops presented and field demonstrations exhibited during the conference. They are intended to serve as references in a wide variety of cover crop management topics. Videos of the field demonstrations from the Southern Cover Crop Conference were also produced.
Cover crops support many insects and other arthropods beneficial for agriculture, in addition to improving soil, crop, and watershed health.
Cover crops are multifunctional tools that can provide a variety of ecosystem services such as cycling and retaining nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) in the cropping system, stabilizing the soil to prevent erosion, adding organic matter to improve soil health, suppressing weeds, and serving as habitat for beneficial organisms both below- and aboveground. The use of cover crop mixtures allows producers to reap the benefits of multiple cover crop species at the same time, maximizing the number of ecosystem services provided in a cropping system.
Investigating soil biology is a wild, unpredictable zoological ride. From the smallest organisms on Earth (viruses) to earthworms, cover crop selection and management is affected by and influences soil biology in ways we cannot completely predict.
Benefits associated with cover crops that may include erosion control, increased organic matter, increased water infiltration, and weed suppression are all typically enhanced as biomass levels increase. In order to ensure adequate levels of biomass, growers should recognize the importance of cover crop establishment.
Evaluating Nutrient, Soil Health, and Economic Benefits of Compost Additions to Summer Cover Crops for Strawberries in North Carolina
Over the past 8 years, a team of multidisciplinary faculty and students at NC State University have conducted various field-based studies at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and on-farm research examining the impact of summer cover crops, compost additions and applications of beneficial arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and vermicompost on soil health, nutrient availability, and yields in conventional and organic strawberry production systems.
Many farmers use legume cover crops or cover crop mixtures to supply nitrogen for their cash crops; however, they often do not know how much nitrogen (N) might be released or immobilized by these cover crops. Better tools to predict the amount of N released by cover crops will aid organic as well as conventional farmers and should encourage the use of cover crops to preserve and increase soil quality.
Economics of Cover Crops I: Profitability of Cover Crops in Row Crop Production and Federal Cost Share for Cover Crops
Many agronomic benefits of covers are also economic benefits. But there are real and perceived agronomic and economic challenges to adopting cover crops. Researchers at the USDA-ARS, National Soil Dynamics Laboratory (NSDL) in Auburn, Alabama and at the University of Georgia—Tifton have past and current research that addresses the challenges faced by producers.
Developed by USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) economists, Lauren Cartwright (Missouri) and Bryon Kirwan (Illinois), The Cover Crop Economic Decision Support Tool is designed to help producers, landowners, planners, and others make informed decisions when considering adding cover crops to their production systems.
Economics of Cover Crops II (Part 2): Benefits of Cover Crops and No-Till Vegetable Production in North Alabama
While the benefits of cover crops are similar regardless of cash crop, there are a number of benefits that are particularly important to vegetable producers. The main benefits of cover crops in vegetable production include increased organic matter; additional N through the use of legumes; suppressing disease, nematodes, and weeds; reducing soil erosion; providing habitat for beneficial insects; and improving soil tilth.
Conservation tillage combined with high residue cover crops (Conservation Systems) can maximize residue production and minimize residue decomposition to promote the increase in organic matter across degraded soils of the Southeast, despite climatic conditions.
Annual cover crops provide ecosystem benefits to perennial-based pasture systems by introducing quality forage at opportune times of the year, creating a more diverse farm habitat, and providing opportunities to renovate overused or underutilized areas of the farm.
Since the official launch of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil Campaign” in October of 2012, the soil health movement has continued to grow, with cover crop and soil health management system adoption rates climbing and stakeholder interest increasing throughout the nation.
Cover crops provide several benefits to soil health such as improving soil structure, reducing the need for synthetic chemicals by decreasing weed biomass, increasing soil organic matter, contributing nutrients to the soil, retaining soil moisture, and decreasing soil erosion. In addition, the integration of cover crops into crop production often leads to soils that are suppressive to plant diseases (i.e. have less potential for disease development).
In southern climates, high tunnels are typically used for season extension in the spring, fall, and winter. In the hot summer months, if no shade cloth is used to cover high tunnels, it can be difficult to grow anything but the most heat tolerant crops, and it can be uncomfortable to work in tunnels due to the heat. This is an excellent time to incorporate a cover crop, between the late spring and early fall crops. Many cover crops species are adapted to hot southern summers and perform well in high tunnels.
Cover crops are an integral component of conservation systems, providing benefits such as improved soil quality for better plant growth and enhanced soil and water conservation for sustainable agricultural production. These cover crops must be managed appropriately for successful direct planting of cash crops into residue covers. Improper cover crop management can lead to planting problems due to interference from cover crop residue such as wrapping residue on planting units that require frequent stops to clean residue that has accumulated on planters.
Vineyard cover crops or ‘living mulch’ consists of either sown or native vegetation, grown in vineyard row middles and/or inclusive of the area under the vine trellis (Fig. 1). Although cover crops can increase pest pressure (arthropods and voles) and vineyard management costs, benefits of cover crops include: erosion and weed control, reduction of herbicide use and mitigation of excessive vine vigor.
Nutrient management is a timely agricultural topic that boils down to determining the right rate, source, timing, and placement of nutrients. Cover crops can greatly influence nitrogen management either by providing available nitrogen for cash crops or by immobilizing nitrogen and creating the need for greater nitrogen fertilizer for cash crops.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, under sub-award number: SC14-001. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.