FAQ about Nurse Crops

Using a nurse crop is a fairly common practice, but we do get questions on the how-to. Here are some frequently asked questions about nurse crops:

When should I use a nurse crop?

We recommend a nurse crop with any new seeding. This included pasture seedings as well as new alfalfa or alfalfa/grass stands. Regardless of weed pressure of the area the new seeding is going, nurse crops can be a useful tool.

Why should I use a nurse crop?

The most known goal of a nurse crop is to suppress weeds while the new plants establish. These seedlings, especially grass seedlings, are susceptible to being shaded out by too much competition. Many annual weeds are much quicker growing than the desired grasses or legumes, so they can quickly become deadly to new seedings. Even if weeds are not a concern for your new seeding area, nurse crops also provide erosion control. Root systems of the young plants are not going to be thick enough to protect the soil during a heavy rain or wind event. Nurse crops provide a quicker establishing root system to hold the soil in place. Another benefit of a nurse crop is proving your operation a source of forage from that ground on the new seeding year. That land would otherwise not provide anything in its first year, so using a nurse crop can be an economical decision as well.

What should I plant for a nurse crop and what rate?

A common nurse crop is cover crop or grain oats. These work well, but if you want to step it up a notch for forage quality and tonnage, you could use a forage oat like Everleaf 126. Forage oats can be used alone as a nurse crop at 40-50 lbs per acre or can be combined with forage peas and seeded at 50-60 lbs per acre. Adding peas can increase protein value in the forage. Some other options would be spring barley or spring triticale. Both of these would be earlier maturing that forage oats and would generally provide lower tonnage.

When should I harvest the nurse crop?

Harvesting the cereal nurse crop earlier, around boot stage, will result in higher quality forage. Waiting slightly longer will increase forage while providing slightly lower quality. Waiting longer to harvest for higher tonnage can also cause lodging and shading problems to your new seeding below. This leads us to the next point…

A question we ask: Do you want a lot of forage or a solid stand of your new seeding?

While it is useful to use nurse crops to provide forage, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you are truly looking for high tonnage from your spring seeded forage, such as oats and peas, it may be better to plant them alone at a higher rate and not as a nurse crop. You could then harvest at the correct time to achieve maximum forage and quality and follow that with a late summer-early fall pasture or alfalfa seeding. This ensures your new seeding does not get shaded out or smothered out.

Let us know your other questions about nurse crops or new seedings!