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.

Marisol Berti is a professor of forage and biomass crop production at NDSU. (NDSU photo)
Marisol Berti is a professor of forage and biomass crop production at NDSU. (NDSU photo)
First, on-farm goals should always be considered before taking on a new practice or in this case adding complexity to a practice, like cover crops. This will help keep your eye on the prize and not spend extra money on seed that may not help you accomplish a goal on your farm. Once you have a goal identified, whether it’s additional water use, reduced evaporation, fixing nitrogen, managing erosion, weeds or other, then we can start building on the use of cover crops.

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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.

Cereal rye cover crop strips on high clay soil. (Abbey Wick / NDSU Extension)
Cereal rye cover crop strips on high clay soil. (Abbey Wick / NDSU Extension)
Another way to play around with your mix without adding diversity, is go more precision planting. You can variable rate the rye seeding based on soil type to use more water on heavier soils and less water on lighter soils. You can also leave skip rows for planting of next year’s crop (usually soybean). This means putting plugs in the drill on specific spacing or using the planter to seed cereal rye on specific rows that would be in-between where you plant next year’s crop. This is more of a precision way to use cereal rye and helps get the cover crop away from the strip where the cash crop is planted the next spring.

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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.