Breeding Better Cover Crops

Recent Research

Breeding Better Cover Crops

Improving the performance and regional adaptation of legume, grass, and brassica cover crops

Farmers use cover crops for important ecosystem services such as nitrogen fixation, reducing soil erosion, improving soil health, suppressing weeds, and providing resources for beneficial organisms. Unlike cash crops, however, cover crops have not been bred to meet farmers’ needs, and consequently commercially available cover crops often have inconsistent performance and undesirable traits like late maturity, seed dormancy, or winter-kill.

A focus on biomass, vigor, winter hardiness, nitrogen fixation, hard seededness, flowering time, and disease resistance.

We are a national network of cover crop and plant breeding experts from universities, non-profits, companies, and governmental agencies. We breed hairy vetch, crimson clover, winter pea, grasses, and brassicas, and are adapting these species to different regional needs. We focus on traits important to farmers, including biomass, vigor, winter hardiness, nitrogen fixation, hard seededness, flowering time, and disease resistance.

Key highlights

  • We have conducted several seasons of selection for hairy vetch, crimson clover, and winter pea at multiple breeding nurseries across the country;
  • In 2018, we tested nearly 70,000 lines across these three legumes, and selected the best 3-6% of lines;
  • We began testing the best-performing legume lines across a wider range of locations, with the goal of identifying lines for release as commercial cultivars;
  • We have done several years of variety trials to screen several grass and brassica species for adaptation as cover crops and to identify future breeding material; and
  • We have worked with farmers throughout the breeding process, through on-farm breeding, workshops, and field days.

Cropping systems to which your work applies 
Any cropping systems using winter annual cover crops

This project was funded by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) Proposals #2015-07406 and 2018-02820, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Proposal #2017-07673, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) proposal “Cover Crop Germplasm and Breeding in Support of New Cultivar Development”, and the Noble Foundation.


Collaborators on this project include Cornell University, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of New Hampshire, Noble Research Institute, USDA-ARS Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center, USDA-ARS Grain Legume Genetics and Physiology Research Unit, and USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Centers.

Virginia Moore, PhD
Formerly a Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, North Carolina State University (NCSU) and Visiting Scientist, USDA-ARS Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), Beltsville, MD; now an Assistant Professor at Cornell University.

Publications and other resources

McGee, RJ, S Eigenbrode, H Nelson and W Schillinger.  2017.  Re-Inventing Austrian Winter Pea.  Crops & Soils Magazine.  doi:10.2134/cs2017.50.0401

Riday H., Kissing Kucek L, Bocher L. May 2017. Improving Legumes for Pasture, Cover Crops, Living Mulch, and Green Manure. Forage Focus. 

Saha, U., R.A. Vann, S.C. Reberg-Horton, M.S. Castillo, S.B. Mirsky, R.J. McGee, and L. Sonon. 2018. Near-infrared spectroscopic models for analysis of winter pea (Pisum sativum L.) quality constituents. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 98: 4253-4267.

Vann, R.A., S.C. Reberg-Horton, M.S. Castillo, S.B. Mirsky, and R.J. McGee. 2018. Winter Pea Cultivar/Breeding Line Screening for Grain Crop Potential in the Southeastern United States. Agronomy Journal 110(4): 1217-1225.
Vann, R.A. 2017. Optimizing short-term cover crop benefits through genotype screening and management. PhD Dissertation.

Vann, R.A., S.C. Reberg-Horton, M.S Castillo, R.J. McGee, and S.B. Mirsky. 2017. Winter pea for grain production in North Carolina: Research Summary. 

Wayman, S., L. Kissing Kucek, S.B. Mirsky, V. Ackroyd, S. Cordeau, and M.R. Ryan. 2016. Organic and conventional farmers differ in their perspectives on cover crop use and breeding. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
32(4): 376-385.

Project dates
2015 – Present

Learn more about us

Learn more about how we can help you to make your cropping
system more sustainable through the use of cover crops.