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Should you switch up cover crops?

If you harvest early, trying a new cover crop routine could prove beneficial.

Allison Lund

April 29, 2024

3 Min Read
Black cattle grazing cereal rye
WHAT IS BEST? If you change your cover crop routine, you should still select plant species that are most suited to your goals. Veteran cover cropper Carter Morgan says cattle producers may want to grow a mix of oats and turnips for grazing. These cattle are out on cereal rye. Allison Lund

When is a good time to change your cover crop routine? According to Carter Morgan, Cayuga, Ind., an early harvest could create the perfect environment for testing out new cover crop combinations on some acreage. Having experimented with most cover crops, he has found what could fare well in that scenario.

“If you name a cover crop, we’ve probably planted it,” Morgan says.

While Morgan’s cover crop routine works for his operation, the cover crops that you use should match the goals for your operation. Morgan’s goals include:

  • minimizing erosion

  • decreasing weed pressure

  • having a variety of termination options

With those goals in mind, Morgan typically sticks to planting cereal rye into cornstalks in the fall on fields that will be planted with soybeans the following spring. After years of experimenting, he has found that this routine fits his goals.

What could change?

If the opportunity to plant cover crops early were to arise, Morgan explains that he would plant a mixture of radishes and oats. That combination provides a good mix of above- and belowground growth, allowing for more organic matter in the soil when the plants are terminated. And mixing cover crops does not have to come at an additional cost.

“When you’re mixing things, there’s going to be some symbiotic advantages to adding multiple species together,” Morgan adds. “Just because you’re adding multiple species doesn’t mean it’s going to be more expensive.”

Another option he recommends is combining turnips and oats. He explains that this combination could work well for cattle producers who are planning to let their herd graze on the cover crops. Many producers have shared that cattle prefer turnips to radishes.

Clovers are another possibility, but Morgan says they need to grow until May to produce enough nitrogen to be deemed effective. With the first-harvested fields typically being the first-planted fields, this could mean clovers are not a good option when planting cover crops early.

When to plant

Morgan says the ideal situation is to plant a short-season soybean for your last field, which would then be harvested first. This creates an earlier window for planting cover crops that would then have a chance to grow for a bit longer.

“That’s where this is going to be your biggest bang for your buck,” Morgan says. “In that last-planted field, you’re probably going to have to plant something really short and harvest it early, because next year, it’s probably going to be your last-planted field.”

If you’re growing wheat that will be harvested this summer, Morgan says that provides a great opportunity to experiment with a variety of cover crop species. Some he recommends in addition to oats and radishes are sunn hemp, sunflowers, clovers, vetch and buckwheat.

“That’s more of a timeframe where you can probably put more species in the ground,” Morgan adds.

Mixing species helps the soil health, creating an environment where roots of different cover crops species can overlap. However, Morgan emphasizes knowing why you’re planting certain species and tying those reasons back to your goals.

“It’s all got to work in a good circle,” Morgan says.

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About the Author(s)

Allison Lund

Allison Lund is a staff writer for Indiana Prairie Farmer. She graduated from Purdue University with a major in agricultural communications and a minor in crop science. She served as president of Purdue’s Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow chapter. In 2022, she received the American FFA Degree. 

Lund grew up on a cash grain farm in south-central Wisconsin, where the primary crops were corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. Her family also raised chewing tobacco and Hereford cattle. She spent most of her time helping with the tobacco crop in the summer and raising Boer goats for FFA projects. 

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