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Water: Agriculture

Cover Crops for Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution Control

Photo of a farmer driving his tractor through the field

Cover crops, such as barley, recycle nutrients that could be lost to leaching or runoff events and reduce erosion by increasing surface cover.
(Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS)

Growing cover crops is a beneficial practice to reduce nutrient and sediment losses from agricultural fields and improve water quality. Cover crops also increase soil health through enhancing soil organic matter content. USDA NRCS’s soil health campaign highlights the benefits of improving and maintaining America's soil. USDA has released guidelines (PDF) (6 pp, 1.92MB, About PDF) for 2014 that allows for more flexible cover crop management than in previous years.

Many organizations are working to expand cover crop implementation including the Midwest Cover Crop Council Exit EPA Disclaimer, the Conservation Technology Innovation Center Exit EPA Disclaimer and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). NWF's Roadmap to Increased Cover Crop Adoption (PDF) (12 pp, 1.65MB, About PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer defines the barriers to cover crop implementation and provides a framework for addressing the barriers to accelerate cover crop adoption. NWF's Clean Water Grows Exit EPA Disclaimer report outlines six successful cover crop outreach efforts to improve water quality. EPA can support cover crops through Clean Water Act section 319 funding.

Related Links:

  • The Great Lakes Cover Crops Initiative Exit EPA Disclaimer is funded by EPA's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and seeks to demonstrate the effectiveness of cover crops and conservation tillage systems to decrease agricultural nonpoint source pollution and inform producers about the economic benefits of these systems.
  • Cover Crops and Soil Health Exit EPA Disclaimer
    Learn more about cover crops and how they improve soil health on this NRCS page. This site also includes plant guides for commonly used cover crops that provide assistance in selecting appropriate cover crops.
  • SARE-CTIC Cover Crop Survey 2013 (PDF)  (39 pp, 19.4MB, About PDF) Exit EPA Disclaimer.
    This survey, carried out by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, demonstrates the potential yield benefits from cover crops planted in drought years. Questions on cover crop adoption, challenges, and benefits were also included in the survey. Additional cover crop surveys conducted by CTIC can be found on the CTIC Cover Crops page Exit EPA Disclaimer.
  • Learn more about nutrient pollution.

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