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U, partners working to learn more about cover crop use

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (5/16/2011) --The term "cover crops" has been getting a lot of interest lately due to concerns over soil erosion, fertilizer prices, pest pressures and water quality.

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University of Minnesota Extension researchers and educators are working with a committee of farmers, agencies, and organizations to help growers make the best decisions about cover crops. A Minnesota Cover Crop Decision Tool is currently being developed by the Midwest Cover Crops Council. It will help farmers to choose which cover crop species will work best for them.

A cover crop is any living cover grown between cash crops. There are numerous reasons to use them in a crop rotation, including:

Decreased soil erosion from wind and water

Decreased nutrient loss due to leaching

Decreased weed pressure

Decreased soil compaction

Increased soil organic matter

Increased nutrient availability due to scavenging or nitrogen fixation

Increased water infiltration

Increased amounts of beneficial soil microbes, fungi and insects

For many, there is little familiarity with the different species used as cover crops. Such species as tillage radish, sorghum-sudangrass, and Austrian winter peas may be one big question mark in the minds of growers. What's the best method of establishment? How long does the plant need to grow to reach the goals? Does the species have good forage value?

Researchers around Minnesota are trying to answer such questions. We are looking into the agronomics of different cover crop species and mixes, studying the success rate of using aircraft to plant into standing cash crops, gathering measurements of nutrient levels, and more.

Before using cover crops for the first time, decide what the main goal or goals will be. Is it soil erosion? Nitrogen credits? Then, choose a cover crop species or mix that best suits those goals. Decide on planting method (drilling, broadcasting, aerial), planting rate, and expected planting date. And, as with all agriculture, be prepared to change your plans depending on the weather and other unexpected hurdles.

Cover crops education is done in partnership with Rural Advantage and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. Visit the Midwest Cover Crops Council at www.mccc.msu.edu. Extension educators have started the Minnesota Cover Crop Listserve for sharing information on cover crop research and events. Email sacke032@umn.edu to get on the listserve.

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