Experts are urging growers not to overlook the value of cover crops as they plan their crop rotations for the new season ahead.
Dr Will Hartley, an environmental science lecturer at Harper Adams University, points to a whole host of productivity, soil health and water quality benefits.
“Add to that the environmental focus of ELMs and the merits offered by cover crops can really stack up,” he says.
“Without the unique capabilities of a cover crop, weakened soil structure can lead to soil loss, and as a result, a loss of nitrates and other important nutrients too.
“This can then increase the requirement for additional applications of inputs such as fertiliser or muck, which comes at a cost.
“However, incorporating radish, chicory or other deep-rooted varieties into your cover crop mix can really help increase soil organisms and organic matter and break down compaction to build a strong soil structure, protecting it for the future” he says.
Dr Hartley explains that one challenge is producers are often unsure how to fit cover crops into their rotation, but there are several different ways of doing this.
“To see the full benefits, the ideal solution would be to plant your entire field with cover crops for several months, however this isn’t practical for many growers. But it can work well with maize crops,” he adds.
“Still, where planting the entire field isn’t an option, growers can plant cover crops in the buffer zones to increase organic matter.
“This can then act as a barrier to run-off and the leaching of nutrients, protecting watercourses.”
Leaving maize stubble over winter is not best practice.
Another option is to plant a later establishing mix such as Westerwold or turnips, after maize harvest, across the entire field.
This can help prevent soil damage during the wetter months, which is key to maximising water quality, as well as crop productivity going forward.
Ultimately, cover crops can improve soil health, productivity and water quality as well as provide financial benefits for growers as it involves more efficient use of soil inputs.