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Multifunctionality of Cover Crops in South Texas: Looking at Multiple Benefits of Cover Cropping on Small Farms in a Subtropical Climate

Authors: Savannah Rugg, Carlo Moreno, Pushpa Soti, Alexis Racelis

Abstract:

Situated in deep South Texas, the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) is considered one the most productive agricultural regions in the southern US. With the highest concentration of organic farms in the state (Hidalgo county), the LRGV has a strong potential to be leaders in sustainable agriculture. Finding management practices that comply with organic certification and increase the health of the agroecosytem and the farmers working the land is increasingly pertinent. Cover cropping, or the intentional planting of non-cash crop vegetation, can serve multiple functions in an agroecosystem by decreasing environmental pollutants that originate from the agroecosystem, reducing inputs needed for crop production, and potentially decreasing on-farm costs for farmers—overall increasing the sustainability of the farm. Use of cover crops on otherwise fallow lands have shown to enhance ecosystem services such as: attracting native beneficial insects (pollinators), increase nutrient availability in topsoil, prevent nutrient leaching, increase soil organic matter, and reduces soil erosion. In this study, four cover crops (Lablab, Sudan Grass, Sunn Hemp, and Pearl Millet) were analyzed in the subtropical region of south Texas to see how their multiple functions enhance ecosystem services. The four cover crops were assessed to see their potential to harbor native insects, their potential to increase soil nitrogen, to increase soil organic matter, and to suppress weeds. The preliminary results suggest that these subtropical varieties of cover crops have potential to enhance ecosystem services on agricultural land in the RGV by increasing soil organic matter (in all varieties), increasing nitrogen in topsoil (Lablab, Sunn Hemp), and reducing weeds (Sudan Grass).

Keywords: Sustainable Agriculture, ecosystem services, Cover Crops, subtropical agriculture

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