The use of pesticides in global agriculture brings with it many problems including the killing of non-target, beneficial species as well as reversing pest-management gains from the use of conservation agriculture methods.
In a newly published study by researchers at Penn State University, the use of plant cover, such as cover crops, was shown to potentially be more effective at reducing pest density and crop damage than the application of insecticides without the downsides. Cover crops reduce insect pest outbreaks by increasing pest predator abundance.
Cover crops are plantings that are primarily used to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, and help control pests and diseases. Typical cover crops include mustard, alfalfa, rye, clovers, buckwheat, and winter peas. Most cover crops are fairly inexpensive to plant.
Plant cover can provide habitat for populations of natural enemies of pests. Winter cover crops can harbor pest predator populations outside of the growing season of the cash crop. When the cover crop is killed off to allow the growth of the cash crop, residues of the cover crop remain on the soil during the growing season, so they still enhance the habitat for pest predators.
Conservation agriculture includes methods like cover crops, no-till planting, and crop rotation. The use of cover crops constitutes a form of preventive pest management that is an alternative to planting seeds treated with systemic insecticides to control early-season pests. There is also the possibility for integrated pest managements, which is an approach in which insecticides are applied but only when pest numbers exceed economic thresholds despite the use of nonchemical tactics.
Photo, posted August 8, 2011, courtesy of USDA NRCS Montana via Flickr.