Net water benefit of cover crops in Northern grains production. Farming water with ground cover

Andrew Erbacher1, David Lawrence2, David Freebairn3, Neil Huth4, Brook Anderson4 & Graham Harris2

 1 Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, 22-26 Lagoon St, Goondiwindi, Qld, 4390,

2 Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, 203 Tor St, Toowoomba, Qld, 4350.

3 DM Freebairn, Wilston, Qld, 4051

4 CSIRO, 203 Tor St, Toowoomba, Qld, 4350.


Low groundcover increases risk of soil erosion and reduces fallow efficiency. To remedy this cover crops can be grown to increase groundcover, but does the increased ground cover improve fallow water accumulation enough to recover the water used to grow the cover crop? To answer this, cover crops were planted into a long fallow following skip row sorghum, and sprayed out prior to growing wheat. The main cover crop was White French millet, which had different termination timings imposed. Other crops included sorghum, lablab and a mixed species (millet, lablab and tillage radish), which were all sprayed out at the same time as the mid-terminated millet. By planting of the subsequent wheat crop, all cover crop treatments, except the lablab, had recovered the water they used prior to termination, with some accumulating more plant available water (PAW) than the control. Increased ground-cover improved establishment of the wheat and all cover crop treatments had higher grain yield than the bare control in a drier than average season. These results confirm a crop can be grown and sprayed out to improve ground cover in a long fallow, without having a net negative effect on PAW, with yield benefits in the following crop in excess of what can be explained by increased soil water.


The Australian Society of Agronomy is the professional body for agronomists in Australia. It has approximately 500 active members drawn from government, universities, research organisations and the private sector.

Photo Credits

David Marland Photography Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, Charles Sturt University

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