Cover crops planted in the fall between harvest and planting of spring crops, reduce soil erosion, limit nitrogen leaching, suppress weeds, increase soil organic matter and improve overall soil quality. Small grain cover crops increase surface cover, anchor corn and soybean residues, increase water infiltration and reduce erosion. Common cover crops used in Iowa include winter hardy plants like rye and wheat. Other less common, but also effective, cover crops include oats, spring wheat, hairy vetch, red clover, sweet clover, turnips, radishes, and triticale.
In addition to the environmental and soil quality benefits, several cover crops are suitable for grazing by livestock or wildlife. Using cover crops may reduce the total energy demands of the farm, by capturing nutrients that would be lost to leaching thus reducing the farm’s requirement for high energy inputs. Like most farm management issues, timing is a critical concern for cover crop management. Producers must plant early enough in the fall to allow for good establishment before winter, but also must kill winter hard cover crops soon enough to prevent yield losses in the following crop.
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