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Growing Cover Crops After Small Grains
by LuAnn Rolling, NRCS District Conservationist
As we look at the coming crop year and the increased cost of inputs, it is a perfect time to consider adding a small grain to your rotation and following it with a summer cover crop.  The small grain is a relatively inexpensive crop and the cover crops enhance soil health properties and can provide supplemental forages, especially fall grazing.  In addition, due to diverse growing habits between the major crop and selected cover crop species, it helps to break disease and weed pressure in the field.

Selecting your cover crop mix is very critical because it should benefit your cropping system and not harm your next cash crop.  According to David Karki, SDSU Extension Field Specialist, if the field will be grown to corn next season, the majority of the mix should contain cool season broadleaf species such as turnip, radish, canola or rape and legumes such as vetch, clovers, pea, lentil, etc.). “Species like radish and turnip have enhanced tap roots, which will aid in breaking compaction in the ground.”  Karki adds that depending on the fall growth, mixes that have higher proportion of legumes may fix significant atmospheric nitrogen and add to the soil nitrate content that could be utilized by the next cash crop.

“If the next crop is soybean, it is suggested to put a mixture high in cool season grasses (rye, oat, barley, triticale, annual ryegrass etc.) and broadleaf,” said Karki.  “These will produce significant amount of biomass in the fall and in some cases the next spring if the mixture consists of winter annuals like winter wheat, triticale, or cereal rye.”

According to Leon Ressler, writing in Lancaster Farming this past September, maintaining an actively growing root system in the soil year-round improves soil quality, while the growing cover crop keeps weeds down and can fix or recycle nitrogen for next year’s crop.  He says the following are options to consider:

• Hairy vetch mixed with oats, to be established by mid to late August. The oats will winterkill, and the hairy vetch will survive the winter and take off in the spring.
• Crimson clover mixed with annual ryegrass or triticale in mid to late August. Both species survive the winter and the mix can supply excellent forage.
• Oats and triticale or rye established as soon as the small grain is harvested. The oats might be harvested in the fall, making excellent forage, whereas the winter small grain will survive the winter.
• Faba beans and tillage radish established immediately after small grain harvest is another idea. Faba beans have large seeds and need to be established with a planter in alternating rows with the tillage radish, preferably on 15-inch row spacing. The tillage radish might be mixed in the box with another species such as rye to provide cover in the spring.
• Tillage radish and Austrian pea. This mixture is likely to winterkill, but it makes for some excellent cover and provides significant nitrogen fixation.