AMES, Iowa – Many crop producers are using best management practices to reduce and control nutrient loss and soil erosion from crop land. These same conservation methods can be applied to large-scale gardens and commercial vegetable production. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is releasing two new publications about combining cover crops and strip-tillage systems and their use in vegetable production.
Cover Crops in Vegetable Production Systems and Conservation Techniques for Vegetable Production: Combining Strip Tillage and Cover Crops are now available at the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store. The publications provide basic information on the types and benefits of cover crops, as well as successfully using a strip-tillage system with rolled cover crops in vegetable crops such broccoli, peppers, pumpkins, squash and tomatoes.
“Growers should consider integrating a cover crop in their crop rotations. Usually cover crops are planted after the cash crop is harvested in the fall,” said Ajay Nair, assistant professor in horticulture and vegetable production specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. “Cereal rye, a common cover crop, is seeded in the fall and is terminated before spring planting of the main crop. A roller or crimper is used to roll and kill the plant – laying it down, covering the soil like a thick mulch.”
If fields are left bare after harvest, snow and rainwater runoff erode the soil, devastating crop fields by taking essential nutrients from the soil – nutrients needed for the next growing season. In addition, the exposed ground is inundated with weeds that use what nutrients are left behind.
Nair said replacing the lost nutrients and removing weeds is costly. “Fortunately, using a combination of cover crops and strip-tillage allows farmers a less expensive way to prevent helpful nutrients from leaving the soil while suppressing weeds, fixing nitrogen, reducing surface crusting and even disrupting pest and disease cycles,” said Nair.
“Fruits and vegetables have many potential seasons of production, and given the choices available with long- and short-term cover crop life cycles, they can fit into any crop rotation plan,” said Nair. Common plants used as cover crops in vegetable production systems include cowpea, wheat, oats, cereal rye, annual ryegrass, oilseed radish, hairy vetch, crimson clover, buckwheat and sorghum-sudangrass.
When a crop is planted into narrow, tilled strips, Nair explained, “The non-tilled area between the strips usually contains residue from the previous season’s main crop or a living or dead cover crop. These publications show how strip tillage of cover crops works and how the producer benefits by minimizing soil erosion, maintaining soil moisture and suppressing weeds.”
Photo caption: Rye cover crop, rolled, terminated and covering the soil between pumpkin plants. Photo by Ajay Nair