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Publication Title | Sunn Hemp: A Cover Crop for Southern and Tropical Farming Systems

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United States Department of Agriculture

Natural Resources Conservation Service

Soil Quality Institute 411 S. Donahue Dr. Auburn, AL 36832 334-844-4741 X-177

Technical Note No.10

May 1999

This is the tenth note in a series of Soil Quality- Agronomy technical notes on the effects of land management on soil quality. This information is general and covers broad application.

SOIL QUALITY – AGRONOMY TECHNICAL NOTE No. 10

Sunn Hemp:

A Cover Crop for Southern and Tropical Farming Systems

Introduction

Do you want a cover crop that will increase organic matter, provide nitrogen, grow in low fertility sandy soils, and does not harbor nematodes? Sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea L.) is a legume that when grown as a summer annual can produce over 5,000 pounds of biomass and over 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Farmers only need 8 to 12 weeks of frost-free growth conditions to receive these results.

Using a winter cover crop/green manure is a conservation practice that provides soil-improving characteristics. A common problem however, is that the relatively short period between cash crop harvest in the fall and planting the following spring can result in less than optimum biomass production of the cover crop. Sunn hemp, because of its rapid growth and relatively short growing season requirement, can be an excellent alternative. Where conditions are favorable, it can provide the benefits of a winter legume prior to a killing frost in the fall and also in the summer after the winter crop has been harvested.

Origin of Sunn Hemp

Sunn hemp originated in India where it has been grown since the dawn of agriculture. It has been utilized as a green manure, livestock feed, and as a non-wood fiber crop. It has also been grown in Brazil and Bangladesh as a soil-improving crop.

Research with sunn hemp has been conducted in the United States since the 1930s, where it was reported to be excellent in improving soil conditions (Cook and White, 1996). However, suitable areas for seed production were limited to mostly southern Texas. The difficulty in producing seed in other parts of the United States caused many farmers to abandon growing the crop. The USDA-NRCS and the University of Hawaii Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources cooperatively released the cultivar ‘Tropic Sun’ sunn hemp in 1983.

Adaptation

Sunn hemp is a tropical or sub-tropical plant that when grown in the continental United States performs like a summer annual. However, it will grow year round in Hawaii below an elevation of 1,000 feet (Rotar and Joy, 1983). Sunn hemp is adapted to a wide range of soils and performs better on

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