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Maximizing the benefits of cover crops for soil health

Crimson clover evaluation plots at the Jimmy Carter Plant Materials Center in Americus, GAInvesting in soil health is an adaptive strategy to improve the sustainability and productivity of soils.  Cover cropping is a management practice in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) toolbox that is used to contribute to soil health on working lands.  Cover crop benefits include reduced soil erosion, increased soil organic matter content, nutrient capture, weed suppression and many more.  Cover crop varieties vary widely in their performance depending on the local climate, soil conditions and purpose for which they are intended.  Through selection of varieties that fit production systems, producers may overcome obstacles that discourage the use of cover crops and maximize their benefits.

The NRCS Plant Materials Program has been involved in the evaluation of conservation plants and planting technology for more than 80 years.  Recently, its network of Plant Materials Centers (PMCs​) completed a nationwide, two-year evaluation of cool season annual species to determine the best varieties for cover cropping.  PMCs provide a unique opportunity to evaluate plants in different locations representative of the varying soils, agronomic methods and weather conditions in the U.S.  Seven cool season annual cover crop species were identified for comparative evaluations with input from State agronomists and soil heath specialists.  Nearly 60 commercially available varieties of black oats, black seeded oats, cereal rye, crimson clover, daikon radish, hairy vetch, red clover, and winter pea were evaluated for characteristics such as timing of emergence, winter survival, maturity dates, and disease and insect damage. 

Hairy vetch varieties at the Jamie. L. Whitten Plant Materials Center, Coffeeville, Mississippi.Data has been summarized by region and is presented in technical notes available now on the Plant Materials Program cover crop performance and adaptation website.  The reports provide information in a table format that allows conservation planners and producers to determine the performance and potential adaptation of a cover crop for each PMC area at a glance.  More detailed information is available from each PMC study report. 

For additional information on specific species of plants mentioned in the technical notes, please see the USDA PLANTS database at: (http://plants.usda.gov/java/) or contact the nearest Plant Materials Center or plant materials specialist (http://plant-materials.nrcs.usda.gov/contact/) and/or the Land Grant Universities that serve the State. For specific information on soils and soil health, please see USDA NRCS soils website at: (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/soils/home/).