Winter Cover Crops for Nevada Agriculture

Cover crops are an essential agricultural soil management practice, with proven benefits of increasing and maintaining soil health, stabilizing soil from erosion, controlling noxious and herbicide resistant weeds, and can increase yields in some cropping systems.  However, many Nevadan farmers are not aware of the benefits of cover crops or do not have the proper resources and information to integrate them into their farming system. A few primary reasons are the Nevadan high desert climate is a very challenging climate to establish winter cover crops, there has not been much research or demonstrations conducted to evaluate best cover crop species and the economical value of cover crops in Nevadan High Desert agricultural systems.

Cover Crops are often fundamentally categorized into two types; Summer and Winter cover crops. Summer cover crops as the term implies, are grown throughout the summer are more beneficial in temperate climates that receive summer rainfall. However in the West, the most common cover cropping practice is with the use of plant species that can survive winter and create good ground cover throughout the winter – Winter cover crops.

In many Western States, winter cover crops can be established (germinated) with no irrigation because of sufficient fall precipitation. The Northern Nevada climate is defined as a high desert with an average altitude range of 3,800- 6,000 feet.  Establishing winter cover crop species in this climate with little to no irrigation poses great challenges.  Early frost dates and unpredictable fall rain create challenging conditions for successful seed germination, if irrigation is not available. Most annual cropping systems in Nevada leave little to no surface residue throughout the winter season, subjecting soil to erosive and degradation.  Finding cover cropping solutions for these farmers could have great impact to our natural resources and enhance farm sustainability. Given the very arid climate, limited water resources for most farms and ranches, and the short growing season of Northern Nevada, the greatest potential for cover crop adoption is most likely with winter cover crops, that can be established with little irrigation in the fall.   

This winter at the Desert Farming Initiative Farm we are trialing many plant species as winter cover crops commonly used in other Western agricultural regions. The establishment of these trials are the beginning of a long term cover crop demonstration program at DFI. We seeded multiple cover crop species in the field and in hoop houses with different seeding dates and irrigation inputs. Cover crop species currently being grown include; Winter Cereal Rye, Annual Rye grass, Triticale, Dundale Pea, Mangus Pea, Hairy Vetch, Bell Bean, Winter Wheat, Winter Oat, Brassica Mix (Nemagon Mustard, Oriental Mustard, Conola, and Daikon Radish). You can read our first report below from data collected in November 2019. Please keep in mind this report does not provide conclusive results. This is a monitoring report.

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