Cover Crops With VNS Aren’t Good Enough

Cover Crop ( Sonja Begemann )

Sometimes you get what you pay for, and one expert suggests variety not stated (VNS) seed in cover crops isn’t sufficient. Instead, Chris Reberg-Horton, associate professor and organic cropping specialist at North Carolina State University says you should invest in a cultivar that’s backed by research.

“We use it [VNS] as a check and it varies so much year over year,” Reberg-Horton says. With variability, you don’t know what to expect and a bad seed lot could leave you with a poor taste in your mouth for cover crops.

These differences in VNS of the same species could be a result of where the seed was grown—seed lots from Georgia versus Minnesota will respond differently, for example—age of the seed or storage conditions. Altogether, the differences mean you don’t know what the cover crop will look like, what it will yield or how it responds in your environment.

Seed companies are researching what it takes to make a better cover crop—which means you get the maximum benefit of planting instead of rolling the dice with VNS.  And public and private entities are finally investing in cover crop breeding.

The need for cover crop innovation is evident.

“[For example] Dixie variety crimson clover was first introduced in 1951 and is still the most favored variety on the market,” Reberg-Horton says. “Would we do that with corn? No. We want innovation. We are far from maximizing the benefits of cover crops.”

Researchers, including Reberg-Horton, are looking into the following breeding targets for these species:

  • Cereal rye: enhance allelopathy, late bloom and provide local adaptations
  • Hairy vetch: fit late or early bloom to user’s needs, soften seeds and provide local adaptations
  • Crimson clover: late or early bloom to fit user’s needs, create hard or soft seed options, improve winter hardiness and provide local adaptations
  • Winter peas: increase disease resistance, improve winter hardiness and provide local adaptations

What improvements would you like to see in cover crop varieties? Let us know in the comments!

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