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Are cover crops in your forage supply?

Jim Paulson
Extension Educator, University of Minnesota Extension

March 8, 2014

The topic of cover crops has been getting lots of discussion. Cover crops are not new but we are certainly looking more at their benefits in recent years. Green manure crops were an early method to add nitrogen to the soil. Ten to 15 years ago, planting a cover crop such as winter rye following a corn silage harvest was used to reduce erosion on mostly bare ground. We now realize the benefits of rooting depth to break up soil's hard pan and how roots bring microbial activity to the soil. Cover crops can also fix nitrogen or scavenge nitrogen in the soil while adding organic matter and ground cover, improving water holding capacity and providing forage for livestock.

Cover crops work best when included in a whole farm cropping system. Cover crops can provide additional forage supply to a livestock farm when used as hay, silage, baleage or grazed in rotation while still providing the other benefits as well. But the questions that need to be considered are what and when. What cover crops provide the best forage? When will I plant? When and how to harvest? And, will this be profitable for me?

A variety of cover crops can work for forage. Which one you use may depend on when you want to plant it. Probably the most common scenario is to plant a cover crop following small grain harvest or corn silage harvest. This would be planted sometime from the middle of August to the middle of September. A cool season crop such as a small grain would be a likely choice. Do you plan to graze it in the fall or let it grow until spring and harvest it for silage, baleage or hay?

Here are some possible mixes and planting strategies to consider:

Mixes of different size seeds require certain considerations at planting. The best method is to use a drill with two different seed boxes and the ability to sow the small grain at an inch and a half deep while sowing the smaller seeds at a quarter to one half inch deep and pressed firmly. Research has been done to evaluate sowing both sizes of seeds together at one inch deep. Depending on soil type, this may or may not be successful. A heavier soil type makes this a risky method because the smaller seed will not emerge from that depth. Broadcasting seed of different sizes is affected by seed weight and density. Larger, heavier seeds tend to be distributed further from a cyclone seeder. Smaller and lighter seed do not carry as far and can be carried by the wind as well. The result can be streaking of seed with this type of seeding. Broadcasting seed, with or without light tillage, requires a higher seeding rate to obtain similar stand density. For these reasons, it is usually more successful to use a drill.

As always, working with your team of farm, nutrition and agronomy members will help to formulate a plan for your operation. These are guidelines to get started that hopefully will lead to a greater forage supply for your farm.

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