What are Cover Crops: Examples & Definition
November 02, 2023

What are Cover Crops: Examples & Definition

By Adam Chronister

Are you curious about sustainable agriculture and the role of cover crops in maintaining soil health? Studies have shown that these unsung heroes of agriculture can significantly improve soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, and control pests sustainably.

This blog will explore what cover crops are, their types, benefits they offer, and how to implement them into your farming practices. Let's delve into the world of cover crops!

Key Takeaways

  • Cover crops are plants grown primarily to benefit the soil and subsequent cash crops.
  • They improve soil health, prevent erosion, and control pests and diseases in sustainable agriculture.
  • Legume cover crops fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, enhancing fertility.
  • Non - leguminous cover crops prevent erosion and suppress weeds naturally.
  • Grass cover crops improve soil structure and control pests effectively.

Understanding Cover Crops

Cover crops are plants that are grown primarily to benefit the soil and subsequent cash crops, rather than for harvest or profit. They play a critical role in sustainable agriculture by improving soil health, preventing erosion, and controlling pests and diseases.

Definition and purpose

Cover crops, also known as green manure, are plants primarily grown not for harvest, but to improve soil health and reduce erosion. They play a crucial role in sustainable agriculture by protecting the soil surface from sun and rain impact, preventing nutrient washout.

Through their roots, they enhance water infiltration and increase biodiversity in the soil structure. Leguminous cover crops like clover or peas can even fix nitrogen from the air into the ground boosting its fertility for future crops.

Besides these valuable contributions to agricultural ecosystems, cover cropping can suppress weeds naturally without chemicals and provide habitat for beneficial insects—natural enemies of crop pests—helping control their populations effectively.

In essence therefore; planting cover crops is primarily about investing in long-term productive capacity of farmlands rather than short term gains.

Types of cover crops

Cover crops come in a wide variety, each with distinct benefits and uses.

  1. Legume Cover Crops: These include alfalfa, hairy vetch, and the Austrian winter pea. They enhance soil fertility by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere.
  2. Non-leguminous Cover Crops: Examples are mustard, rye, radish, and buckwheat. These largely prevent erosion and suppress weeds.
  3. Grass Cover Crops: Such as annual ryegrass, they improve soil structure and control pests.
  4. Flowering Cover Crops: These attract beneficial insects to combat insect pests and increase biodiversity.
  5. Winter Cover Crops: Mainly cereal rye and forage radish, these protect soil surface during off-seasons and contribute to water quality.
  6. Summer Crop: Sunflowers or corn can function as cover crops in the warmer months while enhancing wildlife habitat.

Benefits of cover crops

Cover crops play a paramount role in enhancing soil health. They help increase soil organic matter, improve soil structure, and boost water infiltration. High amounts of organic matter can enhance water availability and retention while reducing compaction.

The improved structure leads to better root penetration making it easier for the next crop's seedlings to establish themselves.

Planting certain cover crops like leguminous plants aids in nitrogen fixation; they pull atmospheric nitrogen into the soil which is beneficial to subsequent cash crops requiring high nitrogen levels.

These plants also suppress weeds by competing with them for light and nutrients, resulting in less reliance on harmful chemical herbicides. Furthermore, cover crops provide an effective habitat for beneficial insects that control pests naturally leading to sustainable farming practices.

Cover cropping systems protect the soil surface against erosion by wind or heavy rains, thus preserving natural resources - our land and water quality. Their aboveground biomass acts as a protective layer while their roots hold the ground together to slow down erosion rates considerably.

Lastly but notably so, these plants offer additional financial benefits as well such as being used as green manure or even sold independently when conditions favor their growth over main cash crop seasons.

Implementing Cover Crops in Agriculture

farmer working in field

Implementing cover crops in agriculture involves incorporating them into crop rotation, managing soil erosion and fertility, and assessing their impact on pests and diseases.

Rotation with cash crops

Cover crops can be successfully integrated with cash crops through a rotation system. This involves planting different cover crop species in between the main cash crops during different growing seasons.

By doing so, farmers can enjoy multiple benefits. Cover crops help improve soil health by adding organic matter and reducing erosion. They also suppress weeds and pests, resulting in healthier cash crops with higher yields.

Additionally, cover crop residues left after termination act as natural fertilizers, reducing the need for synthetic inputs. Implementing rotation with cash crops is an effective way to maximize the advantages of cover cropping while maintaining productivity on the farm.

Management of soil erosion and fertility

Cover crops play a crucial role in the management of soil erosion and fertility. By planting cover crops, farmers can prevent soil erosion caused by heavy rainfall and wind exposure, as well as improve soil fertility for future crops.

These green manures help to retain moisture in the soil, enhance water availability, and increase organic matter content. Additionally, cover crops suppress weeds, control pests naturally, and promote beneficial insects that combat insect pests.

Overall, incorporating cover crops into cropping systems not only conserves water but also enhances soil health and reduces erosion levels effectively.

Impact on pests and diseases

Cover crops have a significant impact on pests and diseases in agriculture. By planting cover crops, farmers can reduce the populations of harmful insects and suppress weed growth.

Certain cover crops, such as radish and rye, release compounds that naturally combat insect pests, helping to protect future cash crops. Additionally, cover crops create a physical barrier that prevents weeds from germinating and spreading.

This not only reduces competition for nutrients and water but also minimizes the need for chemical pesticides. Overall, incorporating cover crops into cropping systems can play a vital role in controlling pests and diseases sustainably.

Ready to take the next step in enhancing your farming practices with cover crops? Visit Swell Seed Co to explore a wide selection of cover crop seeds suited for your needs. Whether you're looking to boost soil health, prevent erosion, or enhance biodiversity, our cover crop seeds can make a significant difference in your agricultural practices.

Commonly Used Cover Crops

Mustard, alfalfa, rye, radish, and buckwheat are some commonly used cover crops. These cover crops provide numerous benefits to the soil and can greatly improve agricultural practices.


mustard plant

Mustard is a commonly used cover crop that offers numerous benefits to agricultural practices. When planted as a cover crop, mustard helps improve soil health by increasing organic matter and suppressing weeds.

Additionally, it can control pests and diseases, making it an effective tool for pest management. Mustard also contributes to soil fertility and nutrient availability, enhancing the overall productivity of the land.

Its ability to reduce erosion makes it an ideal choice for preventing soil loss and maintaining water quality. Overall, mustard is a versatile cover crop that plays a crucial role in sustainable agriculture by promoting healthy soils and improving crop yields.


field of alfalfa

Alfalfa is a popular cover crop choice due to its ability to improve soil fertility and structure. Its deep roots help in breaking up compacted soil, allowing for better water infiltration and root penetration by subsequent cash crops.

Additionally, alfalfa fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, making it available for future plants. This leguminous cover crop also suppresses weeds, reducing competition for resources with cash crops.

Plus, alfalfa attracts beneficial insects that can help control pests naturally. Overall, incorporating alfalfa into your cropping system can enhance both soil health and crop yields.


field of rye

Rye is one of the commonly used cover crops that can provide numerous benefits to your soil and overall agricultural practices. This hardy grass grows quickly, making it an excellent choice for fall or winter cover cropping.

Rye helps reduce erosion by protecting the soil surface from wind and water damage. It also improves soil fertility by increasing organic matter content and enhancing nutrient availability for future crops.

Additionally, rye suppresses weed growth, reducing competition with cash crops during the growing season. By incorporating rye into your cropping systems, you can enhance water quality, conserve natural resources, and promote sustainable agriculture.


radish in the ground

Radish is a commonly used cover crop that offers several benefits to agricultural practices. When planted as a cover crop, radish helps improve soil structure by breaking up compacted soil with its deep taproot.

Additionally, radish increases soil organic matter and fertility as it decomposes, making nutrients more available for future crops. This cover crop also helps control weeds by suppressing their growth and reducing competition for resources.

Overall, incorporating radish into your cover cropping system can greatly enhance soil health and productivity on your farm.


wooden bowl of buckwheat

Buckwheat is a versatile cover crop that offers numerous benefits for soil health and weed control. As a fast-growing plant, it quickly establishes a dense canopy that helps suppress weeds and prevents soil erosion.

Buckwheat has fibrous roots that improve soil structure and increase water infiltration, making it an excellent choice for enhancing soil quality. Additionally, this flowering cover crop attracts beneficial insects like bees and other pollinators, contributing to biodiversity on your farm.

Incorporating buckwheat into your rotation can provide these benefits while also adding organic matter to the soil when it's turned under as green manure.

In conclusion, cover crops are an important tool in sustainable agriculture. They provide numerous benefits such as improving soil health, controlling erosion, and suppressing weeds.

By incorporating cover cropping into their practices, farmers can enhance water availability, increase biodiversity, and ultimately promote the long-term sustainability of their land.

Get in Touch with Swell Seed Co

Ready to learn more or have specific questions about cover crops and our products? We're here to help! Don't hesitate to reach out to us for any inquiries or guidance. 

Contact Swell Seed Co today, and let's work together to enhance your sustainable farming journey.


1. What are cover crops?

Cover crops are plants grown by many farmers between main crop rotations to improve soil health, smother weeds, and conserve water.

2. How do cover crops enhance soil quality?

Cover crops increase soil microbial activity, reduce soil compaction, enhance nitrogen availability in the soil profile and help maintain soil moisture.

3. Can growing cover crops help in controlling erosion?

Absolutely! Cover Crops are excellent for slowing erosion and protecting bare soil from heavy rainfall or strong winds.

4. Why do organic farmers use cover crops?

Organic farmers use cover crop seeds as a natural way to add nutrients to the soil, reduce populations of pests and diseases which helps them with their organic farming practices.

5. What type of plant family does a typical cover crop seed belong to?

Cover crop seeds can come from various plant families such as legumes or grasses depending on what benefits they bring to the specific field conditions.