Cover Crops: An Introduction

By Mike Zwingman

By Mike Zwingman

Cover crops are uncharted territory for most growers, and while they have many benefits to offer, I might include a disclaimer before I dive into this article: cover crops aren’t for everyone.  They have a learning curve and require time, planning, and discipline.  If, however, you can dedicate some interest and attention to cover crops, they will be a boon to your operation.

Starting small and planning well will set you on a good and fulfilling course.  Starting with just a simple species mix on one third of your acres will keep your new practice manageable as you learn the ropes and prevent any chance of failure epic enough to sour you on the idea.  It will ensure small successes that will build your confidence in your ability to manage cover crops and convince you of their value and benefit to your operation.

Even more important than a small start, however, is extensive planning and forethought.  When properly managed, cover crops have the potential to dramatically increase the health of your soil and fitness of your fields, but when not properly managed, cover crops are, for all intents and purposes, weeds.  A well-thought strategy and careful execution will maximize the benefit that cover crops can provide to your operation and ensure that they are never detrimental to your corn and soybeans.

The following points will help you examine your particular situation and guide your initial decisions on pursuing and cultivating cover crops next year:

How much do you know?

Before you jump headlong into this, do some homework.  Gather information and pick the brains of growers experienced in this practice.  Get a real-world sense of how it works, and what it could mean to your life and operation.  If you don’t know any growers currently practicing with cover crops, UFC can provide you connections to knowledgeable growers in the area.

What are your goals?

Each field has particular needs.  Those needs are a significant factor in determining the type of cover crop that would benefit you most.  Take a moment to consider how you would like to improve your soil health and overall field quality, then reference the table below to match the crop to the goal.


What crop will you rotate into?

Cover crops are a bridge from harvest to planting, so considering your main crop and possible changes to your current system will help you achieve maximum benefits from cover crops.  For example, if you will rotate into corn, you might consider planting a low moisture hybrid to ensure an early harvest and thus a timely planting of cover crops.

How and when will you seed the cover crop?

Cover crops need enough time to establish themselves before a freeze, so determining their planting date is crucial.  Planning the planting method (plane, spinner box, drill) will help you estimate this important date.

How and when will you terminate it?

Cover crops are planned obsolescence.  They must have an expiration date to avoid negatively impacting your main crops.  Determining the date and method (tillage, chemical burndown) of their end is critical.

What variables does your situation present that also need to be considered?

Most obvious here is to consider your climate and what cover crop would be hardy for your area to ensure maximum growth.  Perhaps there are other variables specific to you that need to be considered also, including time and finances.

FinalJulyNewsletterAny improvement to your field over the winter via cover crops will facilitate better water management, increase your soil’s holding capacity for spring rains, and reduce erosion, but choosing the cover crop or cover crop mixture that most suits your situation and goals will yield maximum benefits and return on investment.

Cover crops truly are uncharted territory for most growers, but as with any approach to improving your soil health, they are not an all-or-nothing proposition.  If you are interested in them, but hesitant still to pursue this new practice, remember that you can start very small and that UFC can provide information and guidance as you integrate cover crops into your operation.  As a sustainable and field-friendly way to increase soil health and yield potential, the