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Consider Cover Crops in 2012

By Nathan Winter
Extension Educator, McLeod and Meeker Counties

Jill Sackett, Extension Educator - Conservation Agronomist
University of Minnesota Extension / Rural Advantage

A wet spring and recent hail have left some Minnesota fields without a cash crop. The above average temperatures in spring and summer pushed ahead the small grain harvest. Fields without cover and those fields that have had the cash crop taken off can be planted into a cover crop. Other options for farmers include the use of tillage or herbicides to limit weed growth for the remainder of the summer and fall.

A cover crop is any crop grown between two cash crops. Cover crops could be utilized in areas where the cash crop has been taken off. Try planting a cover crop after your winter wheat, spring wheat, oats, barley, peas, sweet corn, or corn silage is harvested. Cover crops can even be worked into the corn-soybean rotation, especially when overseeded at the leaf yellowing stage. Be sure to check with Farm Service Agency and your crop insurance provider any time you intend to harvest or pasture a cover crop. Harvesting a cover crop may affect your crop insurance and your certified acres.

The benefits of utilizing cover crops in a rotation are numerous. Cover crops can reduce soil erosion from wind and rain, prevent soil crusting, improve water absorption and infiltration, and slow water from leaving the landscape. Protecting and improving our soils can help to conserve and improve the soil in your field. Soil quality will be improved and more water will be available for your future cash crops.

Many livestock producers look at cover crops as a way to maximize the production of forages and feed. Cover crops can be grown to supply some livestock forage needs. Cover crops also help to protect crop inputs that you have already spent for your cash crops. Many of the deep-rooted species scavenge nutrients from deeper in the soil and make them available for the next cash crop or future cash crops. Adding legume cover crops can also help to supply some nitrogen to the next cash crop or future cash crops.

Without cover on area fields there is no competition with grass and broadleaf weeds. No competition means that these weeds will be looking for the opportunity to grow and produce seed in your field. Utilize the cover crops to provide the competition for available moisture and nutrients, thus avoiding weed seed production for future generations of unwanted plants.

Choosing which species or mix to plant depends on your needs and goals, as well as the availability of the seed. There are a few main categories of cover crop species and those include grasses, legumes, and brassicas/mustards. Some of the utilized grasses include oats, triticale, millet and winter rye. The legumes commonly include clovers, field peas, alfalfa and vetches. The other category that is utilized is the brassicas/mustards. The most well-known of these is the tillage radish; it also includes canola, forage turnip and yellow mustard.

The same rules on planting timing apply for cover crops as other agronomic crops. Cover crops need to be planted when soil conditions are favorable and rainfall is adequate for germination and establishment.

The Midwest Cover Crop Council has numerous publications listed on its website,, as well as a web-based cover crop decision tool to assist farmers in choosing an appropriate cover crop for their situation. University of Minnesota Extension researchers and educators worked with a committee of farmers, agencies and organizations to help growers make the best decisions about cover crops. Minnesota's decision tool is available.

Following is some of a recent news release from the Minnesota NRCS on cover crops. For the entire news release click on the following link: Those in drought areas should be aware that the Minnesota NRCS State Conservationist Don Baloun has announced an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) signup for producers in Minnesota impacted by the summer of 2012 drought.

USDA-NRCS will provide funding to producers to plant cover crops through EQIP. "This announcement is in response to the USDA Secretary Announcement on July 23, 2012 and NRCS' understanding of the heavy loss of hay and forage impacting livestock producers in Minnesota," said Baloun.

Minnesota NRCS is allocating $400k for a special EQIP sign-up that will take place from August 6th through 10th, 2012. The sign-up will focus on the planting of cover crops for supplemental livestock feed and erosion control. The focus area will be in the severely affected drought counties in southern and NW Minnesota. The counties included in the signup are: Beltrami, Blue Earth, Clay, Cottonwood, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Houston, Jackson, Lac Qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Lincoln, Lyon, Mahnomen, Martin, Marshall, Mower, Murray, Nobles, Norman, Pennington, Pipestone, Polk, Red Lake, Redwood, Rock, Watonwan and Yellow Medicine. Producers interested in obtaining financial assistance for cover crops are encouraged to stop by their local USDA NRCS office.