Replacing tillage with cover crops (CC) for weed management in corn (Zea mays L.)-soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] systems with mechanical weed control has many soil health benefits but in the western Corn Belt, CC establishment after harvest is hampered by cold temperatures, limited labor and few compatible CC species. Spring-planted CC may be an alternative, but information is lacking on suitable CC species. Our objective was to evaluate four spring-planted CC with respect to biomass production and weed suppression, concurrent with CC growth and post-termination. Cover crop species tested were oat (Avena sativa L.), barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), brown mustard [Brassica juncea (L.) Czern.] and yellow mustard (Brassica hirta Moench). They were compared to no-CC treatments that were either tilled pre- and post-planting of soybean (no-CC tilled) or not tilled at all (no-CC weedy). CC were planted in late March to early April, terminated 52–59 days later using an undercutter, and soybean was planted within a week. The experiment had a randomized complete block design with four replications and was repeated for 3 years. Mustards and small grains produced similar amounts of biomass (1.54 Mg ha−1) but mustard biomass production was more consistent (0.85–2.72 Mg ha−1) than that of the small grains (0.35–3.81 Mg ha−1). Relative to the no-CC weedy treatment, mustards suppressed concurrent weed biomass in two out of 3 years, by 31–97%, and small grains suppressed concurrent weed biomass in only 1 year, by 98%.
Six weeks after soybean planting, small grains suppressed weed biomass in one out of 3 years, by 79% relative to the no-CC weedy treatment, but mustards did not provide significant weed suppression. The no-CC tilled treatment suppressed weeds each year relative to the no-CC weedy treatment, on average 87%. The ineffective weed control by CC reduced soybean biomass by about 50% six weeks after planting. While spring-planted CC have the potential for pre-plant weed control, they do not provide adequate early season weed suppression for soybean.