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Long term cover crop research: Maintaining and monitoring soil health

Principal Investigator

Laura L. Van Eerd

Research Institution

University of Guelph

External Funding Partners

Ontario Tomato Research Institute and Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) [Science and Technology Branch]; OMAFRA-University of Guelph funding partnership

Project Start

February 2014

Project End

March 2017


  • Assess the effect of long-term cover crop use on crop productivity, N dynamics and soil quality.
  • Determine the ability of long-term cover crop use to minimize the impact of wheat straw removal on crop productivity, N dynamics and soil quality.
  • Evaluate the impact of cover crop planting date on crop productivity, N dynamics and soil quality.
  • Determine how profit margins are impacted by cover crops and straw removal within the crop rotation.
  • Determine the ability of soil fingerprinting framework to detect differences in soil quality among long-term cover crop use.


  • The determination of how different cover crops on the long-term impact of cover crops on soil health will assist growers’ management decisions when choosing cover crop practices that maximize soil health.
  • The results of evaluating at least a dozen different soil indicators will contribute to the development of a provincial recommendation of the most appropriate measure of soil health.
  • The development of a systems-based approach to integrate cover crops into the cropping system will allow growers to make informed decisions on the integration of cover crops into their production system.

Scientific Summary

Productive soil is critical to enhancing the long term profitability of agriculture. Cover crops may play an important role in maintaining soil health, which is critical for crop productivity and profitability. However, typically cover crop research has focused on planting the cover crop in the fall and studying effects in the following growing season. Although this approach is valid for first time cover crop users, to have meaningful effects on soil quality, long-term studies are needed. Moreover, changes to soil quality are often the result of long-term management practices (i.e. it takes a long time to detect meaningful changes in most soil quality parameters). Therefore, to gain a true picture of the impact of cover crops on soil quality, long-term trials are needed. However, permanent, long-term trials comparing various cover crops are quite rare with the exception of two trials at Ridgetown Campus established in 2007 and 2008. These trials are ideal for evaluating best management practices of cover cropping and potential influences on soil health.

The overall goal of project is to assess the impact of various cover crops to a no cover crop control in terms of 1) yearly and long-term (5+ year) delta yield and profit margins, 2) nitrogen dynamics, and 3) soil quality. This project will use a novel ‘soil fingerprinting’ framework, recently developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researchers to monitor changes in soil quality as impacted by cover crops. Another component of the research is to evaluate the ability of cover crops to minimize the potential negative impact of corn stover or wheat straw removal on crop yields and soil productivity. Specific deliverables include providing best management practices for nitrogen management and stover/straw removal. Not only will the proposed research provide a solid understanding of how overall soil health influences soil processes and resiliency, it will assess the impacts (benefits and risks) of long-term cover cropping, which has a benefit to 1) growers by valuing crop yields and profit margins, 2) general public by increasing crop stability and resiliency and 3) environment by minimizing erosion, nutrient loss and carbon sequestration.