We have a clear starting point for incorporating cover crops into a farm operation — that’s after a small grain crop. We also have a top recommendation for a cover crop to get started with using this practice in a rotation — that’s cereal rye. But, what’s next? I get asked that question often and went to Marisol Berti for some ideas.
If there is fair success with cover crops after small grain with maybe one or two cover crops, like cereal rye and radish, the next step could be to add more diversity. Again, only if this fits your on-farm goal. If you’d like to fix nitrogen after your cash crop, adding a legume to your mix may be helpful for accomplishing that goal. A couple things to keep in mind – the legume seed needs to be inoculated and sometimes that inoculant is very specific, like in the case of faba bean. You also need 60 days of growth to fix nitrogen and make this a beneficial addition to your mix — so watch your timing of seeding. We don’t generally recommend clovers as a legume because of the cost of seed and the difficulty in getting them established. But field peas and faba bean may be something worth trying.
If cereal rye or winter wheat have been a great fit and you are looking for another cover crop that will over-winter in the northern plains, winter camelina may be an option. This is a broad leaf, oil seed cover crop that has a deep tap root and over winters well. Seeding winter camelina around October 1 is ideal, it doesn’t like the heat. The seed is about the size of pepper flakes, so there are some logistical considerations there.
Interseeding cover crops into corn can be another option if looking for a new place in the rotation to fit in cover crops. Typically, cereal rye is flown on into corn at tasseling, but another, little bit more advanced option, is to seed it between the corn rows at five-leaf (or while side dressing nitrogen). There may be some equipment modifications that can be done to do this so that there is good seed to soil contact for improved cover crop establishment.
These are just some of the approaches you can try if looking for the next step with cover crops. As always, you can check out the NDSU Soil Health webpage and YouTube Channel (ndsu.edu/soilhealth) for more ideas.
Abbey Wick is an Extension soil health specialist at North Dakota State University. Marisol Berti is a professor of forage and biomass crop production at NDSU.