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Michigan State scientists study Oriental mustard as cover crop
By KEVIN WALKER
Michigan Correspondent

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have been getting positive results from experiments designed to determine if oriental mustard can be used effectively as a cover crop in Michigan and the Upper Midwest in general.

Oriental mustard, also known as brassica, is the plant that’s processed into spicy brown mustard. According to Sieglinde Snapp, MSU soils and cropping systems ecologist and the lead researcher on the oriental mustard project, the ingredient that gives spicy mustard its spiciness is the same ingredient that can make brassica a good biofumigant.

“A key finding from our research is that mustards appear to improve the root health of subsequent cash crops, so they are a new option for improving soil health,” Snapp said.

Farmers are losing money because of soil-borne pathogens, according to Snapp. Reduced yield potential is often the result of lesions, root hair pruning, fungal invasion and parasitic nematodes in a wide variety of crops. Frequent fumigation improves crop health, but the process is both a financial and environmental burden on farmers and their fields.

“I think it’s important that farmers have as many options as possible so they can innovate and try out what works best on their farm,” Snapp said. “Improved crop health, soil health, nutrient recycling to reduce fertilizer bills, these are all different objectives and we need a portfolio of cover crop options.”

Snapp and her colleagues have been doing experiments with brassica as a cover crop since 2004, and are currently monitoring progress on two field experiments and two on-farm demonstrations. Snapp pointed out that oriental mustard could only be used as a cover crop in the fall in this region, because mustard isn’t winter hardy. Also, the spring is too cool to allow much growth before cash crops need to be planted.

This research was funded through Project GREEEN, which is a cooperative effort between plant-based commodities and businesses, together with the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, MSU Extension and the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

3/29/2006