Research Needed to Realize the Full Potential of Cover Crops

For Release: July 30, 2014

AMES, Iowa — While cover crops have increased in popularity and adoption, the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) believes more work needs to be done to maximize their potential to improve soil health, make cropping systems more resilient to variable weather and to protect the environment. Unlike commodity crops, cover crops do not have a strong presence in agribusiness or seed industry breeding and research programs.

The MCCC recently released a list of eight cover crop research priorities – developed through discussions with numerous stakeholders – identifying the most important research gaps that need to be addressed to strategically advance adoption of cover crops. Key priorities range from assessing the economic value and water quality impacts of cover crops to quantifying their nutrient dynamics and establishing cover crop breeding programs at public universities. To reach the full potential of cover crops in the cropping systems prevalent in this region, the council believes major investments are needed in both on-farm and experiment station research.

“We have barely scratched the surface,” says Dr. Tom Kaspar with the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames. “Addressing these research priorities is a very important first step to reaching the full potential of cover crops.”

“Many of the benefits of cover crops accrue over the long-term, and the typical short-term funding cycles for research do not allow us to really see the changes with time,” adds Dr. Eileen J. Kladivko, agronomy professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

One example of this is the question of nitrogen retention over the long-term. “Cover crops can have both short- and long-term effects on subsequent nitrogen fertilizer need,” says Dr. Matt Ruark, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Soil Science. “Much research has focused on the short-term effects of cover crops on soil nitrogen, such as the nitrogen supply provided with legumes or how grasses and brassicas trap residual nitrogen.

“But the ultimate fate of the trapped nitrogen remains unknown. Long-term studies are required to assess if it is retained in the soil system or eventually used by the crop.”

MCCC encourages research investments by foundations, government agencies and other funding partners in the following areas:

  1. Quantify effects of cover crops on crop productivity and yield stability, soil health, pest management, and resilience of cropping systems to climate stresses.  This requires long-term research (6+ years) with a successful cover crop system.
  1. Quantify nutrient dynamics of cover crops to develop systems that effectively recycle nutrients and synchronize their release with cash crop needs, especially with long-term use of cover crops.
  1. Develop cover crop selection and breeding programs at public universities to produce cover crops that meet more specific needs of cropping systems or locations and provide increased soil health and environmental benefits.
  1. Quantify water quality impacts of cover crop systems at the watershed scale, including nutrient losses and erosion.
  1. Quantify the economic value of cover crops to farmers, landowners and the public, including long-term benefits of soil health on yield potential and risk, enhanced value of farmland and increased environmental benefits.
  1. Continue to improve and refine the MCCC Cover Crop Selector Tool and decision aides for management guidance and for cover crop selection across the Midwest.
  1. Develop and evaluate novel methods to establish and plant cover crops into corn-soybean systems before and after harvest.
  1. Develop and evaluate novel and effective methods to terminate cover crops in corn-soybean systems.

The Midwest Cover Crops Council developed this list through discussions with farmers; researchers; Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agency personnel; seed industry and agribusiness representatives; and extension educators about the problems and potential of cover crops.

The goal of the Midwest Cover Crops Council is to facilitate widespread adoption of cover crops throughout the Midwest to increase the productivity of soil resources and improve the ecological, economic and social sustainability of farming systems.


Founded in 2006, Midwest Cover Crops Council is a diverse group including members from academia, non-governmental organizations, farmers, the private sector, and federal and state agencies that seeks to significantly increase the amount of cover crops on the Midwestern landscape. MCCC works toward this goal by sharing current research, identifying emergent priorities for regional collaboration, discussing contemporary challenges preventing broader adoption of cover crops, and by exploring the possibility of a multidimensional partnership. For additional information, visit


Sarah Carlson | Midwest Cover Crop Research Coordinator | (515)232-5661 |

Dean Baas | Senior Research Associate MSU | (269)-467-5646|