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Charting a course for cover crops

It's hard to sort through all the potential cover crops because there are so many.

One good place to start is a brand-new cover crop chart created by Mark Liebig, Holly Johnson, and several colleagues at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, a USDA-ARS facility at Mandan, North Dakota. They received help from the NRCS and Soil Conservation Districts in North Dakota.

The headings across the top tell you whether a certain cover crop is a cool-season or a warm-season species and whether it is a broadleaf or a grass.

The symbols within the boxes tell you the crop's growth cycle, relative water use, and plant architecture.

Actually, the chart is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you have digested that information, it's time to move to a computer. You can access the Web version of the chart at http://www.mandan.ars.usda.gov. Under Spotlights, click on Cover Crop Chart.

Once you've downloaded the file, you can either scroll down through the descriptions of all 46 cover crops or you can click on the colored box with the name of the crop you want to learn more about. You'll find photos of the crop and bullet points. Here's the description for barley:

• Cool season, grass

• Annual

• Upright plant architecture

• Low water use

• Good salinity tolerance

• Seeding depth: ¾ to 2 inches

• Crude protein: hay, 10% to 15%; grain, 11% to 15%

• Benefits from arbuscular mycorrhizal associations

• Self-pollinator (wind)

• Rated very good at scavenging nitrogen from the soil.

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