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Project dates

2016 - Present

National breeding program focused on three legume cover crops

Unlike cash crops, cover crops have not been bred to optimize the traits that farmers need, particularly for specific regions of the United States. Organic farmers often rely on important management services from legume cover crops like winter pea, hairy vetch, and crimson clover. However, few regionally adapted varieties of these cover crops are available.

New varieties that can better meet the needs of organic farmers

The goal of this project is to improve organic production systems by addressing persistent challenges with legume cover crop performance and consistency. As part of a multi-site network, we planted legume nurseries and advanced line trials for selecting germplasm that performs well in the northeast United States. By the end of the project we hope to release improved winter pea, hairy vetch, and crimson clover varieties.

Key accomplishments, knowledge generated, outreach activities, resources created

  • The top four traits chosen by organic farmers in our national survey about desired cover crop traits were: nitrogen fixation, winter hardiness, biomass production, and early vigor.
  • Best performing lines from the first two years of selection have been planted in replicated advanced line trials across all sites for the 2019 season.
  • In the 2018 field season, 6% and 10% of hairy vetch plants that survived the winter were selected for seed-saving from the ‘early flowering’ nursery and ‘regular flowering’ nursery, respectively.


USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Project: MD.W-2015-07406)

Project Members

Matthew Ryan, Sandra Wayman, and Laurie Drinkwater

Publications and Other Resources

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

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