Cover Crops and Ecosystem Services: Insights from Studies in Temperate Soils

Cover Crops and Ecosystem Services: Insights from Studies in Temperate Soils

Oct. 30, 2015

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Rye cover crop growing in mature corn, surface applied seeding in 2014 at the UNL Haskell Agricultural Laboratory, Concord.

In the October Journal of Agronomy UNL agronomists review cover crop research conducted by multiple universities, shining light on the science behind how cover crops affect the ecosystems where they are used.  Findings indicate the interactions often are complex and provide multiple inter-related services.

The scientists explore the research on how cover crops reduce soil erosion, improve soil physical properties and the soil microbial environment, reduce soil compaction, and benefit wildlife and the larger ecosystem.  They also look at how cover crops can be used to achieve specific goals. By examining a number of studies under varying soil, climate, and cropping conditions, the reader can gain an understanding of how cover crops may perform in their situation to achieve their goals.


Lead author is Humberto Blanco-Canqui; co-authors are Tim M. Shaver, John L. Lindquist, Charles A. Shapiro, Roger W. Elmore, Charles A. Francis, and Gary W. Hergert, all in the UNL Department of Agronomy.

The authors conclude: "Cover crops growing in the same land area can support and allow production of all essential commodities: food (increase or sustain crop yields), fiber, fuel (biofuel feedstock), and feed (forage for livestock production), while still maintaining or improving soil and environmental quality."

Following is the article abstract. See the full article, available free online in the Agronomy Journal, Volume 107, Issue 6, 2015.

Abstract: Cover Crops and Ecosystem Services: Insights from Studies in Temperate Soils

Cover crops can provide multiple soil, agricultural production, and environmental benefits. However, a better understanding of such potential ecosystem services is needed.

We summarized the current state of knowledge of cover crops effects on soil C stocks, soil erosion, physical properties, soil water, nutrients, microbial properties, weed control, crop yields, expanded uses, and economics and highlighted research needs. Our review indicates that cover crops are multifunctional. Cover crops increase soil organic carbon stocks (0.1–1 Mg ha–1 yr–1 or 890 lbs/acre) with the magnitude depending on biomass amount, years in cover crops, and initial soil carbon level. Runoff loss can decrease by up to 80% and sediment loss from 40% to 96% with cover crops. Wind erosion potential also decreases with cover crops, but studies are few. Cover crops alleviate soil compaction, improve soil structural and hydraulic properties, moderate soil temperature, improve microbial properties, recycle nutrients, and suppress weeds.

Cover crops increase or have no effect on crop yields but reduce yields in water-limited regions by reducing available water for the subsequent crops. The few available studies indicate that grazing and haying of cover crops do not adversely affect soil and crop production, which suggests that cover crops biomass removal for livestock or biofuel production can be another benefit from cover crops. Overall, cover crops provide numerous ecosystem services (i.e., soil, crop–livestock systems, and environment), although the magnitude of benefits is highly site specific.

More research data are needed on the (i) multi-functionality of cover crops for different climates and management scenarios and (ii) short- and long-term economic return from cover crops.

UNL researchers are leading or cooperating in a number of cover crop studies in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and through the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network. For more information on these studies and using cover crops see Cover Crops in CropWatch.