The introduction of cover crops in the intercrop period may provide a broad range of ecosystem services derived from the multiple functions they can perform, such as erosion control, recycling of nutrients or forage source. However, the achievement of these services in a particular agrosystem is not always required at the same time or to the same degree. Thus, species selection and definition of targeted objectives is critical when growing cover crops. The goal of the current work was to describe the traits that determine the suitability of five species (barley, rye, triticale, mustard and vetch) for cover cropping. A field trial was established during two seasons (October to April) in Madrid (central Spain). Ground cover and biomass were monitored at regular intervals during each growing season. A Gompertz model characterized ground cover until the decay observed after frosts, while biomass was fitted to Gompertz, logistic and linear-exponential equations. At the end of the experiment, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and fibre (neutral detergent, acid and lignin) contents, and the N fixed by the legume were determined. The grasses reached the highest ground cover (83–99%) and biomass (1226–1928 g/m2) at the end of the experiment. With the highest C:N ratio (27–39) and dietary fibre (527–600 mg/g) and the lowest residue quality (~680 mg/g), grasses were suitable for erosion control, catch crop and fodder. The vetch presented the lowest N uptake (2·4 and 0·7 g N/m2) due to N fixation (9·8 and 1·6 g N/m2) and low biomass accumulation. The mustard presented high N uptake in the warm year and could act as a catch crop, but low fodder capability in both years. The thermal time before reaching 30% ground cover was a good indicator of early coverage species. Variable quantification allowed finding variability among the species and provided information for further decisions involving cover crop selection and management.