Cover crops could be considered the backbone of any annual cropping system that seeks to be sustainable. In this publication we summarize the principal uses and benefits of cover crops and green manures. Brief descriptions and examples are provided for winter cover crops, summer green manures, living mulches, catch crops, and some forage crops. To impart a sense of the importance of these practices in sustainable farming, we summarize the effect of cover crops and green manures on: organic matter and soil structure, nitrogen production, soil microbial activity, nutrient enhancement, rooting action, weed suppression, and soil and water conservation. Management issues addressed include vegetation management, limitations of cover crops, use in crop rotations, use in pest management, and economics of cover crops. A selection of print and Web resources are provided for further reading.
Benefits of Cover Crops and Green Manures
Organic Matter and Soil Structure
A major benefit obtained from green manures is the addition of organic matter to the soil. During the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, compounds are formed that are resistant to decomposition—such as gums, waxes, and resins. These compounds—and the mycelia, mucus, and slime produced by the microorganisms—help bind together soil particles as granules, or aggregates. A well-aggregated soil tills easily, is well aerated, and has a high water infiltration rate. Increased levels of organic matter also influence soil humus. Humus—the substance that results as the end product of the decay of plant and animal materials in the soil—provides a wide range of benefits to crop production.
Sod-forming grass or grass-legume mixtures are important in crop rotations because they help replenish organic matter lost during annual cultivation. However, several years of sod production are sometimes required before measurable changes in humus levels occur. In comparison, annual green manures have a negligible effect on humus levels, because tillage and cultivation are conducted each year. They do replenish the supply of active, rapidly decomposing organic matter. (1)
The contribution of organic matter to the soil from a green manure crop is comparable to the addition of 9 to 13 tons per acre of farmyard manure or 1.8 to 2.2 tons dry matter per acre.