Considering Cover Crops


Whitney Klasna Photo

by Lilly Platts

Farmers throughout the country faced one of the most difficult planting seasons in recent memory and many were forced to abandon their original crop plan due to excess moisture, closed roads, missed insurance deadlines, and other complications.  In response, some have turned to cover crops, adding to the already growing uptrend in the overall use of alternative crops for regenerative agriculture practices.  While cover crops can be a great option for various scenarios, there are a number of factors that must be considered to ensure success and profit.

Kate Vogel, Agronomist at North 40 Ag, said she has seen an increase in the use of cover crops over the last several years.  North 40 Ag covers Montana, northern Wyoming, and western North Dakota and most crops in that region are used for livestock feed.

“In our region the most common goal is typically for the cover crop to produce forage (grazing usually, but also haying) for livestock,” she explained.  “Other common goals we see are to provide some lasting residue cover after a pea crop, improve a saline area, generally improve soil health by adding some diversity, and keep a living root in the soil.”

Extreme moisture in 2019 pushed more farmers toward alternative crops as a backup plan.  The effects of late planting will continue throughout the year – as of July 14, South Dakota spring wheat headed was at 75 percent, which is behind 95 percent last year.  Similarly, spring wheat in Montana is headed at 60 percent, compared to 81 percent last year, according a USDA report.  A similar late trend can be seen in most crops.  These statistics only include fields farmers were able to plant – a large number of fields were too wet, or in areas of the midwest hit extremely hard by storms, inaccessible due to closed roads.  Once these conditions lessened, some farmers did choose to salvage what they could with cover crops.  Regardless of the purpose of a cover crop, Vogel said the key to success is having a clear goal.

“It is really important to know why you want to plant a cover crop.  We have seen some failure without clear goals,” Vogel said.  “If you don’t have a clear purpose to planting a cover crop we will work with you to determine if this is really the right path for your operation.  Different farmer/rancher, equipment, soils, rotations, livestock or not, means planting a cover crop is not a cookie cutter experience and is unique on each operation.”

Grazing is a common reason to plant a cover crop and can be an especially attractive option when hay prices are projected to rise.  What to plant and when is region-specific, but must factor in when grazing will occur, how long cattle will graze, stocking rates, desired nutritional value, cost, and more.

“It is important to know when the demand for the forage is,” Vogel said.  “If early spring grazing is needed, planting a fall cover crop like winter triticale and hairy vetch can fill this niche.  If looking for a late June or July grazing mix you may plant an oat, pea, barley, turnip, collard type mix.  If you are looking for winter grazing you may plant sorghum-sudangrass, millet, corn, vetch, turnip, collard, sunflower type mix.  The success of these are going to be determined by the producer’s goals, crop history, and equipment.”

Past herbicide use and residue, for example, can be an issue.  Corn fields with a history of heavy herbicide use can be detrimental to a cover crop.  South Dakota State University advises factoring in the following when making a decision about planting: herbicide history, Insurance and Farm Service Agency (FSA) guidelines, purpose, seed availability and price, crop rotation, termination, weed control, soil fertility, and planting time.

If a cover crop option can satisfy these considerations, farmers can either rent out pasture or graze their own cattle.  In best-case scenarios, this may satisfy several needs, including recovering value after excess moisture and restoring soil health.

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