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Multiservice cover crops: a key pilar of the ecological transition.

The development of new methods and techniques is a central part of efforts to improve the economic performance and environmental friendliness of French agriculture. Of particular interest are strategies for reducing synthetic inputs (i.e., pesticides and fertilisers) and for boosting ecosystem services that will benefit farmers and everyday citizens alike. During the agricultural innovation symposium (CIAg) held October 4–5, 2017 in Toulouse, INRA presented a key tool that can be exploited by farmers: multiservice cover crops.

Grandes Cultures Experimental Farm—INRA Occitanie-Toulouse @INRA. © INRA
Updated on 11/27/2017
Published on 10/05/2017

Regional press release: Toulouse, October 5, 2017

Using multiservice cover crops to achieve efficient agroecological production

In the crop rotation cycle, the fallow period between two main crops occurs between the harvest of one crop and the sowing of the next; it can last a few days or several months. Farmers can take advantage of the fallow period between two main crops to increase the biodiversity of plants and soil organisms, as well as to boost ecosystem services related to soil fertility, carbon cycling, water quality, and pest control. Multiservice cover crops (MICs) are crops that are planted during the fallow period between two main crops with a view to promoting ecosystem services other than forage or seed production.

Numerous species can be used (e.g., black oat, mustard, radish, blue tansy), either by themselves or in combination with legumes (e.g., clover, vetch, field bean, pea). The best option will depend on crop succession, seed availability, objectives and constraints during the fallow period between two main crops, sowing periods, soil type, and removal method (freezing and mechanical tools, but no herbicides, if possible).

Farmers are primarily interested in the following services: 1) the recycling of minerals (e.g., nitrate, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur); 2) the ability of cover crops to limit erosion; 3) increased soil structure; 4) weed and pest control; and 5) increased levels of soil organic matter and carbon sequestration.

MICs can also positively affect biodiversity. For example, cover crops can provide food and shelter to small fauna such as partridge, pheasant, and hare. The use of flowering and/or nectar-producing plants can help feed insect pollinators.

In France, there is great potential for expanding MIC use: they could be planted on several more million hectares each year. Used as complements to crop diversification and expanded rotation duration, MICs could become a key part of agroecological practices. They are already frequently used in conservation agriculture. Their use represents a shift in crop farming strategies that does not entail profound changes to production systems, which may encourage their adoption by farmers. At the heart of the agroecological transition is the development of new, multiperformance agricultural systems that strike a balance between productivity and economic, social, and environmental performance.

A forum for discussing the benefits of MICs for current and future agroecological systems

INRA's agricultural innovation symposia (CIAgs) are national meetings where scientists can share their research and discuss scientific advances with farmers, agricultural development stakeholders, private sector representatives, students, and policymakers.

The objective of the MIC-themed CIAg was two-fold: 1) to share knowledge about the ecological mechanisms underlying the ecosystem services provided by MICs and 2) to describe how MICs can be used to enhance farm sustainability in a customised way.

This goal was achieved by providing both concrete examples (e.g., effects on soils, climate change, weeds) associated with different agricultural situations and "field” demonstrations (e.g., species/varieties, sensors/tools for phenotyping varieties, automation technologies, introduction into the crop rotation cycle) to an audience that was interested in understanding how MICs work. For instance, those present wanted to know more about MICs’ specific effects, performance, and expression of desirable traits under different management conditions. They also wanted to know more about future lines of investigation.

INRA Occitanie-Toulouse: innovative tools for implementing agroecological strategies

Agroecological research seeks to both increase agricultural performance and limit environmental impacts by exploiting ecological processes and plant diversity. This goal involves designing cropping systems that are adapted to unpredictable conditions, in which there is abiotic variability (e.g., climate change), biotic variability (e.g., pest outbreaks), and economic variability (e.g., volatile energy prices, input availability, and product availability).
For the last several years, field research has been carried out at INRA's Auzeville Experimental Farm with a view to characterising plant varieties (i.e., via phenotyping) and developing innovative cropping systems. Researchers in the Joint Research Unit for Agroecosystems and Territorial Development (AGIR; which is associated with INRA, INP-ENSAT, and INP-Purpan) and at the Grandes Cultures Experimental Farm are looking to design prototype agroecological cropping systems and evaluate their performance under low levels of synthetic inputs (i.e., fertilisers and pesticides). One innovative facet of this research lies in the fact that a wide diversity of varieties, species (e.g., sunflower, durum wheat, common wheat, pea, field bean, soybean, lentil, and sorghum), and species combinations (e.g., wheat-pea or soybean-sunflower associations) are being used and MICs are being planted in the intercropping period.

>>> Download the press release (in French)

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