Integrating Cover Crops for Agroecosystem Services


Cover crops are used in US agriculture1 to improve soil conditions for a subsequent cash crop as an alternative to synthetic amendments.2 Cover crops are primarily planted between cash crop growing seasons. Still, they can also be planted alongside cash crops as well as part of a polyculture system.

Producers and farmers have been slow to adopt cover crops as part of their crop rotation because of many factors, including a lack of regionally-appropriate information on cover crop selection, planting, maintenance, termination methods, and economics.3,4,5 Despite this, interest in using cover crops is increasing, especially in the Southeast.3 Beyond the benefits for soil health, cover crops may also improve habitat for wildlife and beneficial arthropods within the agroecosystem.

Agroecosystem Services

There are many reasons why a producer may want to integrate cover crops into their agroecosystem. Farmers use cover crops to increase the availability of carbon,6 nitrogen,7 and other nutrients8,9,10 in the soil by offering a favorable environment for microorganisms to live and by releasing or recycling them11 for subsequent cash crops. Cover crops protect the soil from erosion by blocking wind,12 reducing raindrop impact,13,14 and holding the soil in place with their roots.15 Cover crops can help mitigate weather extremes16 by preserving soil moisture during drought,17 allowing for increased drainage via old root pores,18 or a combination thereof. Various cover crops break disease cycles19 and outcompete20,21 or inhibit weeds and some arthropod pests.22, 23, 24 Cover crop selection is dependent on which service is preferred by farmers (e.g., weed suppression, nutrient addition, erosion control, or tilth improvement). The Southern Cover Crop Council’s Cover Crop Resource Guide ( can identify cover crops for a specific use. On the website, select your cropping system and the location of the farm, and then select the “Cover Crop Functions & Rankings” for the season (summer or winter) in which the cover is desired.

Provision of Food and Shelter for Songbirds and Arthropods

With habitat loss occurring every year, many wildlife species use farmland to fulfill basic requirements like food and shelter.25 For example, leaving intact borders of natural vegetation or planted crops (cover or cash) around fields does not negatively affect yield and attracts wildlife for shelter and food.26 Songbirds, particularly grassland songbirds, may be attracted to cover crops because of increased habitat and food resources,27 especially in the breeding season when insects become the main part of their diet.28 Nesting success of insectivorous birds of conservation concern such as the loggerhead shrike,28,29 may increase due to greater habitat variety that cover crops provide, which also increases their food choices.29

Secondary Agroecosystem Services

Using cover crops to provide habitat to arthropod and wildlife can result in both ecosystem services and disservices. Pollination of and pest control within cash crops can increase due to cover crops.26 For example, sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) can attract predatory arthropods once they reach six inches in height,30 as well as pollinators and parasitoids once they begin to flower.30 The type of cover crop planted can influence the community of pollinators that forage in that area.31 For example, a radish (Raphanus sativus) cover crop reduces soil compaction and attracts parasitoids, while a sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) cover crop fixes nitrogen and attracts wild bees.32 Pollinators, especially bees, are a considerable benefit to agriculture, as they account for 35% of crop production worldwide.33,34 When used as a floral border for cabbage, buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) provides nectar as a food source for parasitic wasps that can help control pest caterpillars.35 Along with bees, butterflies, and flies, parasitoid insects also act as pollinators.36 Carabid beetles have a varied diet and can consume arthropod pests as well as weed seeds37 and are attracted to many cover crops, which provide the beetles with an abundance of food and favorable microclimate conditions.32 Some cover crops are planted as a “decoy” crop, meaning that they are planted to attract wildlife away from the cash crop by offering better shelter or food. For example, planting specific varieties of sunflowers reduces seed predation by blackbirds on other sunflower varieties that were being grown as a cash crop.38

Some birds and arthropods that are attracted to the cover crops may be considered pests themselves. Generalist pests can find refuge in cover crops if there is no suitable host plant or if the host plant cannot provide resources.39 Cover crops may offer other wildlife shelter and a food source when they otherwise would leave the area in search for these services elsewhere. In both cases, the cover crop provides an opportunity for these pests to stay and damage the next cash crops.40

Provision of Food for Larger Animals Including Game

Landowners often use cover crops to create food plots and increase hunting opportunities for game species such as white-tailed deer,41 wild turkey,42 mourning dove,43 and northern bobwhite.44 However, deer and turkey can become pests in agricultural production systems, as well as feral hogs, an invasive species that has a severe impact on agriculture and the environment.45,46 Cover crop food plots also attract incidental species such as songbirds, cottontail rabbits, raccoons, and rodents.47 While the latter are considered pests in agricultural production systems due to food safety issues and direct crop consumption, some species of raptors, like the American kestrel, are potentially providing pest control of rodents.48


Cover crops not only benefit soil health by cycling nutrients, preventing erosion, safeguarding against weather extremes, reducing compaction, and suppressing weeds, but they also offer wildlife services. Farmers, producers, and forestry managers can identify which cover crops will support specific wildlife services in the southeastern United States. Consult table 1 to identify which cover crops support desired arthropod(s) and other wildlife.37,38,40,41,46

Table 1. Arthropods and other wildlife supported by commonly utilized cover crops in the southeastern United States.

Buckwheat Sunflower Turnip Radish Sorghum Wheat Cowpea Crimson clover
Insect – pollinators32
Insect – parasitoids32
Insect – predators32
Honeybees / native bees32
Wild turkey42
Mourning dove43
Bobwhite quail44

References Cited

  1. Jason S. Bergtold, Steven Ramsey, Lucas Maddy, Jeffery R. Williams. A review of economic considerations for cover crops as a conservation practice. Renewable agriculture and food systems. 2017;34(1):62–76.
  2. Fageria NK, Baligar VC, Bailey BA. Role of cover crops in improving soil and row crop productivity. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis. 2005;36(19-20):2733–2757. doi:10.1080/00103620500303939.
  3. Featherstone AM, Goodwin BK. Factors influencing a farmer’s decision to invest in long-term conservation improvements. Land Economics. 1993;69(1):67. doi:10.2307/3146279.
  4. Hamilton AV, Mortensen DA, Allen MK. The state of the cover crop nation and how to set realistic future goals for the popular conservation practice. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 2017;72(5). doi:10.2489/jswc.72.5.111a.
  5. Snapp S, Swinton S, Labarta R, Mutch D, Black R, Leep R, O’Neil K. Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches. Agronomy Journal. 2005;97:322–332.
  6. Sainju U, Singh B, Whitehead W. Long-term effects of tillage, cover crops, and nitrogen fertilization on organic carbon and nitrogen concentrations in sandy loam soils in Georgia, USA. Soil and Tillage Research. 2002;63(3- 4):167–179. doi:10.1016/s0167-1987(01)00244-6.
  7. Choi B, Daimon H. Effect of hairy vetch incorporated as green manure on growth and N uptake of sorghum crop. Plant Production Science. 2008;11(2):211–216. doi:10.1626/pps.11.211.
  8. Cavigelli MA, Thien SJ. Phosphorus bioavailability following incorporation of green manure crops. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 2003;67(4):1186–1194. doi:10.2136/sssaj2003.11864.
  9. Nascente AS, Stone LF, Crusciol CAC. Soil chemical properties affected by cover crops under no-tillage system. Revista Ceres. 2015;62(4):401–409. doi:10.1590/0034-737×201562040010.
  10. Rosecrance RC, Mc GW, Shelton DR, Teasdale JR. Denitrification and N mineralization from hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) and rye (Secale cereale L.) cover crop monocultures and bicultures. Plant and Soil. 227(1-2):283–290. doi:10.1023/A:1026582012290.
  11. Cobo JG, Barrios E, Kass DCL, Thomas RJ. Decomposition and nutrient release by green manures in a tropical hillside agroecosystem. Plant and Soil. 2002;240:33–342. doi:10.1023/A:1015720324392.
  12. Hoag BK, Geiszler GN. Sunflower rows to protect fallow from wind erosion. Farm Research. 1971:7–12.
  13. Baumhardt RL, Lascano RJ. Rain infiltration as affected by wheat residue amount and distribution in ridged tillage. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 1996;60(6):1908–1913. doi:10.2136/sssaj1996.03615995006000060041x.
  14. Espejo-Pérez AJ, Rodríguez-Lizana A, Ordóñez R, Giráldez JV. Soil loss and runoff reduction in olive-tree dry- farming with cover crops. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 2013;77(6):2140–2148. doi:10.2136/sssaj2013.06.0250.
  15. Langdale GW, Blevins RL, Karlen DL, McCool DK, Nearing MA, Skidmore EL, Thomas AW, Tyler DD, Williams JR. Cover crop effects on soil erosion by wind and water. Cover crops for clean water. 1991;15–22.
  16. Daniel J, Abaye A, Alley M, Adcock C, Maitland J, Wilkinson W. Winter annual cover crops in a no-till cotton production system in Virginia. Acta Horticulturae. 1999;(504):99–106. doi:10.17660/actahortic.1999.504.10.
  17. Busscher W, Bauer P. Soil strength, cotton root growth and lint yield in a southeastern USA coastal loamy sand. Soil and Tillage Research. 2003;74(2):151–159. doi:10.1016/j.still.2003.06.002.
  18. Cresswell H, Kirkegaard J. Subsoil amelioration by plant-roots – the process and the evidence. Soil Research. 1995;33(2):221. doi:10.1071/sr9950221.
  19. Farooq M, Jabran K, Cheema ZA, Wahid A, Siddique KH. The role of allelopathy in agricultural pest management. Pest Management Science. 2011;67(5):493–506. doi:10.1002/ps.2091.
  20. Dyck E. Crop-weed interference as influenced by a leguminous or synthetic fertilizer nitrogen source: II. Rotation experiments with crimson clover, field corn, and lambsquarters. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 1995;56(2):109–120. doi:10.1016/0167-8809(95)00644-3.
  21. Dyck E, Liebman M. Soil fertility management as a factor in weed control: the effect of crimson clover residue, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and their interaction on emergence and early growth of lambsquarters and sweet corn. Plant and Soil. 1994;167(2):227–237. doi:10.1007/bf00007949.
  22. Leslie AW, Wang K-H, Meyer SL, Marahatta S, Hooks CR. Influence of cover crops on arthropods, free-living nematodes, and yield in a succeeding no-till soybean crop. Applied Soil Ecology. 2017;117-118:21–31. doi:10.1016/j.apsoil.2017.04.003.
  23. Caamal-Maldonado JA, Jiménez-Osornio JJ, Torres-Barragán A, Anaya AL. The use of allelopathic legume cover and mulch species for weed control in cropping systems. Agronomy Journal. 2001;93(1):27–36. doi:10.2134/agronj2001.93127x.
  24. Khanh TD, Chung MI, Xuan TD, Tawata S. The exploitation of crop allelopathy in sustainable agricultural production. Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science. 2005;191(3):172–184. doi:10.1111/j.1439-037x.2005.00172.x.
  25. Neave P, Neave E, Weins T, Riche T. Availability of wildlife habitat on farmland. Environmental Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture. Report of the Agri-Environmental Indicator Project. Research Branch, Policy Branch, Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2000;145-156.
  26. Stamps WT, Dailey TV, Gruenhagen NM, Linit MJ. Soybean yield and resource conservation field borders. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 2008;124(1-2):142–146. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2007.08.004.
  27. Robertson BA, Doran PJ, Loomis LR, Robertson JR, Schemske DW. Perennial biomass feedstocks enhance avian diversity. GCB Bioenergy. 2010;3(3):235–246. doi:10.1111/j.1757-1707.2010.01080.x.
  28. Mcintyre NE, Thompson TR. A comparison of conservation reserve program habitat plantings with respect to arthropod prey for grassland birds. The American Midland Naturalist. 2003;150(2):291–301. doi:10.1674/0003- 0031(2003)150[0291:acocrp];2.
  29. Wilcoxen CA, Walk JW, Ward MP. Use of cover crop fields by migratory and resident birds. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 2018;252:42–50. doi:10.1016/j.a.
  30. Jones GA, Gillett JL. Intercropping with sunflowers to attract beneficial insects in organic agriculture. Florida Entomologist. 2005;88(1):91–96. doi:10.1653/0015-4040(2005)088[0091:iwstab];2.
  31. Wratten SD, Gillespie M, Decourtye A, Mader E, Desneux N. Pollinator habitat enhancement: benefits to other ecosystem services. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 2012;159:112–122. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2012.06.020.
  32. Lee-Mader E, Stine A, Fowler J, Hopwood J, Vaughan M. Cover cropping for pollinators and beneficial insects. Washington (DC): Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Center (SARE); 2015. Supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture under award number 2014-38640-22173.
  33. Winfree R, Williams NM, Gaines H, Ascher JS, Kremen C. Wild bee pollinators provide the majority of crop visitation across land-use gradients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, USA. Journal of Applied Ecology. 2007;45(3):793–802. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2007.01418.x.
  34. Ellis KE, Barbercheck ME. Management of overwintering cover crops influences floral resources and visitation by native bees. Environmental Entomology. 2015;44(4):999–1010. doi:10.1093/ee/nvv086.
  35. Lee JC, Heimpel GE. Impact of flowering buckwheat on Lepidopteran cabbage pests and their parasitoids at two spatial scales. Biological Control. 2005;34(3):290–301. doi:10.1016/j.biocontrol.2005.06.002.
  36. Winfree R, Gross BJ, Kremen C. Valuing pollination services to agriculture. Ecological Economics. 2011;71:80–88. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2011.08.001.
  37. Blubaugh CK, Hagler JR, Machtley SA, Kaplan I. Cover crops increase foraging activity of omnivorous predators in seed patches and facilitate weed biological control. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 2016;231:264–270. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2016.06.045.
  38. Hagy HM, Linz GM, Bleier WJ. Optimizing the use of decoy plots for blackbird control in commercial sunflower. Crop Protection. 2008;27(11):1442–1447. doi:10.1016/j.cropro.2008.07.006.
  39. Harper CA. PB 1769 A guide to successful wildlife food plots blending science with common sense. Knoxville (TN): University of Tennessee Extension; 2012 Feb. PB1769.
  40. Conover MR, Butikofer E, Decker DJ. Wildlife damage to crops: perceptions of agricultural and wildlife leaders in 1957, 1987, and 2017. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 2018;42(4):551–558. doi:10.1002/wsb.930.
  41. Cook C, Gray B. Effective food plots for white-tailed deer in Alabama. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. p. 48. 2005.
  42. Hammond JD, Straka TJ, Brown TA. Incremental investment value of wild turkey management on the South Carolina Piedmont. Natural Resources. 2014;05(12):719–731. doi:10.4236/nr.2014.512062.
  43. Marks R. Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) Pauline R, Rewa C, Mirarchi RE, Dolton DD, Hayslette SE, editors. Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet. 205AD;31:1–8.
  44. Morris G, Conner LM, Oli MK. Use of supplemental northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) food by non-target species. Florida Field Naturalist. 2010;38(3):99–105.
  45. Conover MR, Butikofer E, Decker DJ. Wildlife damage to crops: perceptions of agricultural and wildlife leaders in 1957, 1978, and 2017. Wildlife Society bulletin. 2020;42(4):551–558. doi:10.1002/wsb.930.
  46. Seward NW, VerCauteren KC, Witmer GW, Engeman RM. Feral swine impacts on agriculture and the environment. Sheep & Goat Research Journal. 2004;19:34–40.
  47. Donalty S, Henke SE, Kerr CL. Use of winter food plots by nongame wildlife species. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 2003;31(3):774–778.
  48. Zagorski ME. Winter ecology of raptors in cover-cropped agroecosystems in western Indiana [dissertation]. [Lafayette (IN)]: Purdue University. 2019.
  49. Ball D. Growing forage crops for wildlife. Proceedings of the 7th Kentucky Grazing Conference; 2006 Nov; Lexington (KY): University of Kentucky. p. 27–31.
  50. Fortenbery DK. An evaluation of rabbit management procedures as applied in southeastern Virginia. Blacksburg (VA): Virginia Polytechnic Institute; 1959.
  51. Varga M. Rabbit basic science. In: Textbook of rabbit medicine. 2nd ed. Oxford (UK): Butterworth-Heinemann; c2013. p. 3–108. doi:10.1016/B978-0-7020-4979-8.00001-7.

Publication Number



Looking for homeowner based information?

Share This