Cover Crop Windows - Pre-Plant Cool Season

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“We don’t have a window for seeding cover crops.”

                Everyone has heard that, right? This post is the first of a series explaining the various windows for cover crops on most farms. Key word there is most, every farm is different and this can be adjusted in ways that work for you. Disclaimer: The dates of these windows will vary based on region!

          This first window of the season is one that is often forgotten about because of the focus on making sure the fields are ready for a cash crop like corn or beans to be planted. However, with mildly favorable spring conditions, there is definitely time to get a cover crop growing if you do not have one from the previous fall. Some examples of spring planted options before cash crops are:

  • Oats
  • Forage Barley
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Brassicas
  • Clovers

          All of these could establish in the cooler spring temperatures to feed soil biology, suppress weeds, and take up nutrients that could otherwise be lost to spring rains. In the case of the legumes, the cover crop could also be fixing nitrogen and storing it in its tissues. Since this cover crop will be young and have a low carbon to nitrogen ration, the plants will quickly break down (soil biology snacks) releasing that nitrogen and other nutrients to your cash crop seedlings. Pop-up fertilizer anyone?

          While this spring cover may not accumulate a huge above ground biomass, the underground root system that these fast-establishing perennials form will do wonders for your soil structure. You may be thinking, “No, way we need the soils to warm up and dry out as soon as possible.” It is true that in a heavy rainfall year, all ground, including those with cover crops, are going to stay wetter than we would like. However, on an average year, cover crops like oats and barley will be using moisture in your soil which could prep fields well for planting.

          What about not planting corn or beans? This window is perfect if you are planning on using a summer annual forage. Since warm season annuals need to have 65 degree and rising soil temperatures before they can be planted, your spring window is even larger than for corn and beans. Instead of leaving that soil bare before planting, consider a legume-based cover crop blend that will build soil and fix nitrogen for you. Some blends may even provide you additional forage before the summer annual is planted! That's Great News!

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Consider how this cover crop seeding window could work on your operation!