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Consider cover crops for unplanted acres

By Nathan Winter and Jill Sackett, University of Minnesota Extension

ST. PAUL, Minn. (7/18/2011) —Planting conditions from a wet spring left some Minnesota fields unplanted. Emerging crops in some areas have been hit with wind, hail and ponded water. Farmers have been left with three choices: plant a crop that may not fully mature, use tillage or herbicides to limit weeds, or plant a cover crop.

Cover crops could be utilized for prevented plant acres. Be sure to check with Farm Service Agency and your crop insurance provider before taking action on prevented plant acres. Cover crops also work well after small grains, canning crops and silage. They can even be worked into the corn-soybean rotation, especially when overseeded at the leaf yellowing stage. A cover crop is any crop grown between two cash crops.

The benefits of utilizing cover crops in a rotation are numerous. Cover crops can:

  • reduce soil erosion from wind and rain by holding soil in place

  • prevent soil crusting

  • improve water absorption and infiltration; slow water from leaving the landscape

  • be used as grazing ground or cut forages

  • scavenge nutrients from deeper in the soil and make them available for the next cash crop (deep-rooted species)

  • serve as an excellent source of nitrogen (legumes)

  • prevent weeds

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:

  • Grasses include oats, triticale, millet and winter rye.
  • Legumes include clovers, field peas, alfalfa and vetches.
  • Brassicas/mustards include tillage radish, canola, forage turnip and yellow mustard.

The same rules on 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 are working with a committee of farmers, agencies and organizations to help growers make the best decisions about cover crops. Minnesota's decision tool will be available soon.

Any use of this article must include the byline or following credit line: Jill Sackett is a conservation agronomist with University of Minnesota Extension and Rural Advantage. Nathan Winter is a crops educator with Extension.

Media Contact: Catherine Dehdashti, U of M Extension, (612) 625-0237,

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