Cover crops are grown primarily for the purpose of ‘protecting or improving’ between periods of regular crop production. Cover crops can contribute to sustainable intensification of crop production through several mechanisms including; increasing soil nutrient and water retention, improving soil structure/quality, reducing the risk of soil erosion, surface run-off and diffuse pollution by providing soil cover and by managing weeds or soil-borne pests. The most appropriate cover crop species/management will depend on what the grower wants to achieve.
The benefits of cover crops are often not realised on farm because of a lack of evidence about which cover crop species or mix is best and how to manage the crop in different situations. Understanding the effects of different cover crops on soil properties, yield and other ecosystem services is critical to realise the potential benefits. Practical science based information on cover crop selection and management in UK conditions is required.
This paper outlines the key findings from the AHDB Maxi cover crop project and pulls together the ‘state of the art’ for cover crops in the UK. Focusing on the effects of cover crops on soil properties, nitrogen and phosphorous cycling, cover crop growth, impacts on the following cash crop and establishment and destruction of cover crops.