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Salute Soil Health: Don’t pass up the opportunity to get a living cover on your fields before winter arrives.

Don Donovan

August 29, 2022

2 Min Read
seeding cover crops from vertical-tillage tool
EFFICIENT SEEDING: There are still efficient ways to seed cover crops after harvest. If you’re running a vertical-tillage tool, perhaps you can seed off the tool. Tom J. Bechman

A common concern with cover crops is the extra time it takes to seed them. Most operations are short-handed during harvest. Some don’t use cover crops because they don’t have an extra person to drive another tractor during harvest. But what about after harvest? While a later seeding date drastically changes what species you can plant, there are still options.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing what is important in your operation. Do you have time for fall tillage or fall fertilizer applications? If so, there is time enough to seed a cover crop.

In fact, some farmers rig a seeder on their tillage tool, such as on a vertical-till machine. The driver tills and seeds at the same time. Others ask their fertilizer retailer to blend cover crop seed with fertilizer, then disk it lightly.

Or perhaps a retired neighbor who runs your grain cart could drill cover crops after harvest. Sometimes it is simply a matter of wanting to get something accomplished. Then you make it happen.

Fall priorities

After harvest is a good time for fall applications of lime and fertilizer or spraying winter annual weeds, but it is also a good time to plant cover crops.

Do you wait to plant corn or soybeans in the spring? Treat cover crops like cash crops, planting sooner rather than later. The later you seed cover crops, the fewer choices you have for species. Options quickly narrow to mainly cereal rye by early November.

Drilling or broadcast-seeding with a very light incorporation by a vertical-tillage tool usually improves the stand, especially if it’s drier or after Oct. 1. Drilling provides good seed-to-soil contact and is more likely to leave moisture available without drying out soil. 

Cover crops planted later should be allowed to grow longer in the spring to achieve good root growth, with a higher carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in top growth.

Last-minute cereal rye cover crop plantings, especially in early November, shorten growth potential. Letting it grow longer in the spring still provides quality benefits, including suppressing weeds, scavenging nitrogen and building organic matter, and perhaps providing feed for livestock. Cereal rye can germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees F. It’s one of the first cover crops to start growing each spring. 

Change your thinking

Making cover crops successful on your farm requires a change in mindset. If you want them to be successful, they will be successful. You will make them successful with your actions and decisions.

Try this as a first step: Adopt the mindset that your cover crops are as important as your cash crops. Another step is promising yourself that you will buy quality seed and will plant it correctly.

Then you can obtain the best results possible. To discuss making cover crops a valuable part of your farm, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or soil and water conservation district office.

Donovan is a district conservationist with NRCS. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

About the Author(s)

Don Donovan

Don Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Parke County, Ind. He is a contributor to the Salute Soil Health column that appears regularly in Indiana Prairie Farmer on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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