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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Cover Crops Boost Soil Health, Nutrients, Earthworms and Lower Costs

February 14, 2012

PIKETON, Ohio – Ohio farmers looking to improve the overall
health of their soil should consider planting oilseed radish, cereal rye, cowpea
or Austrian winter pea as a cover crop, which can improve soil health and save
money, says a soil scientist at the Ohio State University South Centers in

While cover
crops incorporated into a continuous no-till field crop rotation can produce
enough nitrogen to complement or replace corn nitrogen fertilizer applications,
which means less money spent on fertilizer applications, cover crops can also
improve the health of the soil by sustaining soil microbes, earthworms and
other organisms, said Rafiq Islam, who holds joint appointments with Ohio State
University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

To make
continuous no-till a success, cover crops are a must, he said.

“Cover crops
improve the soil structure, support microbial efficiency and diversity,
facilitate drainage, reduce soil erosion and nutrient leaching, store carbon,
and suppress weeds and pathogens,” Islam said. “They also break up soil compaction.”

will discuss the use of cover crops during a workshop March 6 at the Conservation Tillage and
Technology Conference. A “Soil Quality” workshop funded by North-Central
Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education, which begins at 9 a.m., will
offer strategies and tips for growers on everything
they’ll need to know about cover crops worked into a corn/soybean/wheat
rotation under continuous no-till, and the positive benefits to soil, water and
air quality, he said.

Cover crops
Islam recommends includes oilseed radish, cereal rye, cowpea or Austrian winter
pea. He called oilseed radish a “wonder crop” for its numerous soil and water

“Oilseed radish
can penetrate the soil more than 30 inches deep,
which uplifts the soil and allows water drainage to be improved,” Islam said.
“Plus we found that it can penetrate with more than 280 pounds per square inch
pressure to break up soil compaction and can be used as a natural biofumigant in
organic agricultural production systems.

radish grows in any soil, and it suppresses
nematodes and disease-causing organisms but to our knowledge, not earthworms.”

He said
legumes such as cowpea and Austrian winter pea used as cover crops can provide 140 to 150 pounds
of nitrogen fertilizer per year, enough so that growers wouldn’t have to use
nitrogen for any succeeding corn plantings. Also, cowpea tolerates drought.

Another benefit is the increase in
earthworm populations, which can be doubled through the use of cover crops,
Islam said. Earthworms, which are a good indicator of soil health, enhance soil
health through recycling
nutrients and encouraging soil aeration, porosity and percolation. 

Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference is sponsored by OSU Extension,
OARDC, Northwest Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Ohio
No-Till Council, and North-Central Sustainable Agricultural Research and

The full
schedule and registration information can be found at Participants may
register online or by mail. Registration for the full conference is $80 (or $60
for one day) if received by Feb. 24. Information is also available in county
offices of OSU Extension.


Tracy Turner
Rafiq Islam