Cover crops more effective than insecticides for managing pests, study suggests

by Chuck Gill, Pennsylvania State University 
March 31, 2022

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Promoting early season plant cover, primarily through the use of cover crops, can be more effective at reducing pest density and crop damage than insecticide applications, according to a Penn State-led team of researchers.

In a newly published study, the researchers suggest that the best pest management outcomes may occur when growers encourage biological control — in the form of pests’ natural enemies — by planting cover crops and avoiding broad-spectrum insecticides as much as possible.

The use of cover crops and other conservation-agriculture practices can help reduce erosion and nutrient loss, enhance soil health, and improve pest management, noted study co-author John Tooker, professor of entomology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Although the adoption of such methods has increased, he said, the use of pesticides continues to grow in the United States and globally, potentially killing nontarget, beneficial species and reversing pest-management gains from the use of conservation-agriculture tactics.

“Plant cover, such as cover crops, can provide habitat for populations of natural enemies of pests,” Tooker said. “Winter cover crops, for example, can harbor predator populations outside the growing season of the cash crop. Once the cover crop is killed to allow the growth of the cash crop, cover crop residues remain on the soil during the growing season and enhance habitat for predators.

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