Cover Crops Can Benefit Citrus

Ernie Neff Cover Crops

cover crops
Photo by Lauren Diepenbrock

Cover crops, which are not planted for harvest and sale, offer numerous potential benefits to Florida citrus growers. The benefits and additional information were addressed in a presentation offered at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) booth at Citrus Expo in August.

The crops can improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. They can supply nitrogen, reduce leaching of nutrients and pesticides, decrease erosion and reduce weeds. Benefits from cover crops may be an additional strategy to improve Florida citrus production and reduce fertilizer and water inputs impacted by HLB, the presentation stated.

According to the presentation, legume cover crops, through a symbiotic relationship with specific soil microbes, can fix nitrogen (N) from the atmosphere and add it to the soil, thus increasing soil N. In addition, when cover crops decompose, soil N content increases.

The appropriate cover crop mix will largely depend on grove needs and location. Research is being done to determine what amount of nutrients are released into the soil from crops planted in a grove, particularly those that increase biological nitrogen fixation.

Cover crops suppress weeds most commonly by using light, water and nutrient resources before the weeds do, stated the presentation. The degree of weed suppression depends on the density and diversity of weed species, the crop species, management and climatic conditions.

Some cover crop challenges were listed in the presentation:

  • Little is known about the economic benefits of cover crop adoption for citrus in Florida.
  • Some considerations to keep in mind are capital investments in a planter (e.g., no-till planter), seed costs, labor and time needed to learn effective management of this system.
  • Because of Florida’s low soil organic matter (SOM) and unique climate, increasing SOM and soil nutrients is expected to be a long-term process. It may take years for changes in soil health to translate to changes in tree health and productivity.  

See the full UF/IFAS cover crops presentation. It includes information about soil organic matter, cover crop varieties being tested in trials, and numerous cover crop management considerations.

Source: UF/IFAS

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