Prairie Farmer Logo

5 steps to cover crop success

Cover crop expert provides tips on how to select and plant an effective cover crop.

Jill Loehr, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

August 15, 2016

3 Min Read

Ask a farmer what’s the hardest part of growing cover crops and the answer will be fairly consistent: establishing a cover crop. Nathan Johanning, extension educator with the University of Illinois and state representative for the Midwest Cover Crops Council, understands farmers’ hesitation - especially after trying and failing to establish a cover crop. However, with a few important tips in mind, Johanning is confident Illinois farmers can successfully plant and establish a cover crop.

Here are 5 things Johanning says farmers should keep in mind before planting cover crops:

1) Pick a winner.


Not all cover crops are created equal and there are many factors you should consider, including what you hope to achieve with the cover crop: erosion control, nitrogen production, or weed suppression. “Choose your cover crop species based on the time of year and what will work,” says Johanning. Oilseed radish and oats should be planted earlier than cereal rye, he explains.

2) Timing is everything.

Johanning recommends planting at least one month, if not earlier, ahead of typical first frost timing in your area for cold-sensitive cover crops.

3) Use your resources.

The Midwest Cover Crops Council decision tool provides cover crop information tailored by county. Johanning says the tool tracks frost-free dates and ideal cover crop establishment dates based on average climate conditions. For example, the tool may recommend planting annual rye grass or oats in early September, but switch to a different cover crop species option after October 1.

Related story: How to kill annual ryegrass

“I’ve heard people say ‘I planted oats or radishes and it didn’t turn out’,” says Johanning. “Come to find out they planted them on October 1 and we had a cold spell right away so it didn’t get a chance to grow. That’s not the cover crop’s fault, that’s just the situation.”

4) By land or by air.

Johanning says there are several ways to plant cover crops, such as aerial seeding and surface broadcasting, but drilling is the most effective. “Year after year, drilling cover crops is the best way to get the most consistent stand,” says Johanning. He adds all cover crop planting methods can be effective, but stand establishment with aerial or broadcast seeding is extremely dependent on timely rainfall following planting.

“I’m not against those techniques (aerial and broadcast seeding),” Johanning says. “Just know when you’re not getting seed-to-soil contact, you’re relying on Mother Nature to be a little more cooperative than otherwise.”

5) Know who you’re dealing with.

Johanning recommends working with a reputable seed dealer so you can be confident you’re purchasing a quality product that will germinate.

Johanning says for first-time cover croppers, look at oats and oilseed radishes that winter kill. “That’s a great way to get some of the benefits of cover crops, without worrying about termination,” Johanning adds.

Related story: How do cover crops impact water quality?

For no-till soybean farmers, Johanning says cereal rye is a “reliable, simple and economical” first-time choice. He recommends planting 40 to 60 pounds per acre of cereal rye anywhere from early September to early November.

“If you’re planning for an early-spring burndown anyway, cereal rye is easily managed,” Johanning explains. “Just be sure to let it get some size, around knee-high, or you won’t get the full benefits of the cover crop.”

Download our FREE report: Cover Crops: Best management practices

About the Author(s)

Jill Loehr

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer, Loehr

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like