Effects of cover crops on soil nutrients and soil erosion

I am Simon Futerman, a PhD student at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture. I am conducting my doctoral research at the Model Farm’s Field Crops plots, under the supervision of Dr. Gil Eshel (Soil Erosion Research Station), Dr. Yafit Cohen (Institute of Agricultural Engineering) and Dr Yael Laor (Newe Ya’ar Research Center). I hold a BSc from the Hebrew University in Soil and Water Sciences, and an MSc in Plant Sciences from Wageningen University in The Netherlands.

In my research I try to understand how cover crops, a common practice in conservation farming, affects soil erosion and the uptake of soil nutrients. Both topics are tightly linked to sustainable agriculture: preserving soil as a vital resource, and reducing, or optimizing, the use of chemical fertilizers (by using nitrogen-fixing cover crops for example).

The Research and Field Crops Plots:

The Field Crops area at the Model Farm encompasses a total of 350 dunam (10 dunam equlas 1 hectare). Of these, 200 dunam have been divided into 20 smaller sub-pots in which various combinations of four base treatments will be examined. The four treatments are:

Two organic matter supplement treatments:

  1. Fresh or semi-stabilized organic matter (manure), as per standard practice
  2. Organic matter (manure) stabilized by compostization (pruning waste + fresh material)

Two agricultural approach treatments/soil management treatments:

  1. Minimal intervention as per recommended sustainable practices
  2. Conservation agriculture approach (zero tillage, cover plants, year-round ground cover)

Sowing cover plants, examining soil nutrients and uptake in plant:

The latter two treatments were implemented in December 2019 (the organic matter supplement treatments have not yet been implemented). Within the treatment of conservation agriculture, 10 plots were sown with 5 different cover crops from 3 families: Grains- oats (Saia 6), bread wheat (Mispo 37); Legumes- vicia, clover; Cruciferae- rapeseed. The seeds were sown at sowing densities of 4, 4, 4, 1.5 and 0.1 kg/dunam, respectively.

In order to measure the spatial variation in soil NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) at the early stages, a high-resolution soil sampling was conducted in all 20 sub-plots several days after sowing. We will repeat this sampling process at later stages to gain insights into the impact of cover crops on soil NPK and soil organic matter over time.

Additionally, we sampled the cover crops biomass shortly before termination. The plants were cut at ground level, oven-dried and weighed. Every cover crop specie was weighed separately and later sampled for NPK content.

In order to examine the effectiveness of using both spectral and regular cameras in evaluating cover plant biomass and nutrient uptake, drones provided overhead imagery on several occasions throughout the season. These images will be examined using different indices in order to identify the one most appropriate for studying the data.

Soil water erosion:

The winter of 2019/2020 brought very heavy rainfall that led to several water erosion incidents throughout the Field Crops plots.

In order to quantify the amount of topsoil lost, we carried out a topographic survey using RTK-enhanced GPS for increased precision. The data is processed into a detailed topographic map that together with additional image processing, will allow us to quantify soil erosion. The stability of water stable aggregates was also measured, and organic matter content will be measured at a later stage as well.

Combining the various data and information will allow us to understand the ways in which soil management treatments impact the conservation, or loss, of soil.


Agricultural Research Organization,
Newe Ya‘ar Research Center, P. O. Box 1021, Ramat Yishay, Israel

Phone numbers: 972-4-9539595

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