Cover cropping has been a known technique since ancient times and has been used in civilizations that are distant from each other, in both space and time, as a tool to improve soil fertility and to ensure yield stability. Over recent years, the growing side effects of intensive agriculture have stimulated a renewed attention toward cover crops, because of their ability to reduce the environmental impact deriving from the increased use of agrochemicals and agricultural mechanization. This chapter provides an overview of cover cropping typologies and their significance in different agricultural contexts, including their effects on physical (structure, porosity, thermal regime, water evaporation, erodibility) and chemical (organic matter content, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and microelements) soil characteristics, as well on the biocenotic components of the agroecosystems (weeds, pathogens, arthropods, nematodes). The main characteristics of the better-suited species for cover cropping purposes are also reported. Among these characteristics, particular attention has been paid to soil and climate preferences, vegetative vigour, persistence over time or competitive ability against weeds, all traits considered of pivotal importance in determining their possible diffusion as cover crops in agricultural systems. Finally, it is worth considering that cover crops performance improvement is critically affected by agricultural (i.e. adopting measures aimed at cost reduction, identification of seed mixtures suitable for enhancing the biological complementarity among species) and genetic innovation (breeding of specific genotypes for cover cropping purposes)
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