PRS Publications

Have this publication emailed to you.

Cover Crop Characteristics and Impacts on Agronomic Systems in Southern Illinois

Sievers, T. J. . 2016.


Midwestern farmers face the dual challenge of increasing crop production while reducing environmental impacts. Best management practices to decrease nutrient and soil loss in agronomic systems has fueled the resurgence of the cover cropping practice, but many growers are uncertain about the effects that different cover crop species may have in their fields or how combinations of tillage and cover crops may influence yields or soil characteristics. Different cover crop characteristics, such as above and belowground biomass production, nitrogen content, and decomposition may affect both soils and crop yields. Field experiments were conducted across two sites in southern Illinois from 2013 to 2015 to study characteristics of cover crops and the impact of cover crops and tillage on soils, nutrient availability, and agronomic field crop performance. Specifically, these studies 1) determine the effects of cover crops on soil nitrogen, 2) quantify above and belowground biomass production of cover crops, 3) quantify the grain yield and belowground biomass of the following crops of corn (Zea mays L.) and soybeans (Glycine max L. Merr.), and 4) evaluate cover crop decomposition and nutrient release of a leguminous and non-leguminous species. In both field sites, Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) treatments produced the most biomass and accumulated the most nitrogen of all cover crop treatments. Cover crop establishment was a problem for the 2014%u22122015 field season. Cover crops, for the most part, did not have an influence on corn or soybean grain yields, except that corn following Hairy vetch treatments tended to be higher in grain yields than corn following Annual ryegrass treatments. Soybeans following Annual ryegrass treatments tended to be higher in grain yield than soybeans following Canola treatments. Root biomass production was higher for cover cropped plots than non-cover cropped plots (weed root biomass), and corn or soybean root biomass was more affected by tillage practices rather than the main effect of cover crop. Tilled treatments were typically higher in soil nitrate and total inorganic nitrogen compared to No-till treatments, and Annual ryegrass treatments were consistently lower in soil nitrogen compared to other cover crop treatments. Hairy vetch and cereal rye (Secale cereale L.) decomposition and nutrient release was monitored over a 16 week period, with litterbag and intact root core collections at 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 16 weeks. Decomposition and nitrogen release data were fit to a single exponential decay model with an asymptote. Cereal rye aboveground (k = 0.14) and belowground (k = 0.19) biomass decomposed more gradually compared to hairy vetch aboveground (k = 0.45) and belowground (k = 0.68) biomass. The same trend developed for nitrogen release with cereal rye aboveground (k = 0.07) and belowground (k = 0.19) biomass releasing nitrogen slower and more gradually compared to hairy vetch aboveground (k = 0.61) and belowground (k = 0.61) biomass. Most of the hairy vetch nitrogen was released around Week 2, but the corn crop did not reach the V6 growth stage until Week 8, therefore cover crop nitrogen release and cash crop uptake may have not been synchronized. Plant Root Simulator ion exchange resin membrane probes also captured significantly more nitrogen in hairy vetch plots compared to cereal rye plots at weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, and 12, which indicates that hairy vetch could increase the readily plant available total nitrogen (nitrate ammonium) in the soil throughout the bulk of cover crop decomposition. Farmers should decrease the time between cover crop termination and cash crop planting in order to increase the likelihood of crop synchrony. This research will help farmers develop better management practices regarding inclusion of cover crops into traditional agronomic production systems.