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Cover crops and living mulches

  • Nathan L. Hartwig and Hans Ulrich Ammon (a1)

Abstract

Cover crops and living mulches bring many benefits to crop production. Interest in winter annual cover crops such as winter rye and hairy vetch for ground cover and soil erosion control has been increasing in the last 30 yr in some areas. The integration of cover crops into a cropping system by relay cropping, overseeding, interseeding, and double cropping may serve to provide and conserve nitrogen for grain crops, reduce soil erosion, reduce weed pressure, and increase soil organic matter content (Hartwig and Hoffman 1975). Hairy vetch has increased availability of nitrogen to succeeding crops, increased soil organic matter, improved soil structure and water infiltration, decreased water runoff, reduced surface soil temperature and water evaporation, improved weed control, and increased soil productivity (Frye et al. 1988). More recent research with perennial living mulches, such as crownvetch (Hartwig 1983), flatpea, birdsfoot trefoil, and white clover (Ammon et al. 1995), has added a new dimension to the use of ground covers that eliminates the need to reseed each year. Cropping systems with the use of ground covers have been worked out for vineyards, orchards, and common agronomic crops, such as corn, small grains, and forages. Legume cover crops have the potential for fixing nitrogen, a portion of which will be available for high-nitrogen–requiring crops such as corn. In areas where excess nitrogen is already a problem, the use of ground covers may provide a sink to tie up some of this excess nitrogen and hold it until the next growing season, when a crop that can make use of it might be planted (Hooda et al. 1998). Even legumes tend to use soil nitrogen rather than fixing their own, if it is available. It is these possibilities that provide the incentive for looking at the effect of various kinds of cover crops on soil erosion, nitrogen budgets, weed control, and other pest management and environmental problems.

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Corresponding author

Corresponding author. Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Penn State University, 116 A.S.I. Building University Park, PA 16802; nlh@psu.edu

References

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