Cover Crops

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Cover crops provide wide variety of benefits...

USDA-NRCS conservation agronomist Jason Miller said using a cocktail or mixture of cover crops provides the most benefit to soil health and meets the varied objectives producers are likely to have when planting a cover crop. Some of those objectives include: providing livestock grazing, increasing nitrogen, stopping erosion, managing water and weeds, reducing compaction and boosting organic matter.

“The mixtures are critical because there’s not one single species that’s going to meet all your objectives,” Miller said. “More that likely a guy is going to want to have soil health, reduce soil compaction and provide fertilized stock grazing. You are going to need a multitude of species. It’s very common to plant three to five species out in your field.”

Miller defines a cover crop as any crop planted between periods of regular cash crop production. For producers growing wheat and other small grains, cover crops fit in between late summer harvest and spring planting. For some corn growers, cover crops fit in between the fall silage harvest and spring planting.

Soybean and grain corn producers generally do not have the opportunity to plant cover crops because harvest occurs too late in the season, Miller said, but some options do exist if the weather and timing allow.

Cover crops are also a great alternative to summer fallow because they save moisture and keep nutrients near the soil surface, he said. “For the summer fallow guys, I think it’s an excellent fit for them to put something in there to keep some soil biology moving versus keeping that environment sterilized, which basically that’s what fallow does,” Miller said.

But how can cover crops save moisture by using moisture?

Miller said that even the best soils can only hold 11 inches of plant-available water. Other soils in South Dakota will only hold 8-9 inches. Miller said once the soil is full, it won’t hold anymore, meaning producers are essentially wasting water by not using it.

District conservationist in Burleigh County, ND, Jay Fuhrer said cover crops actually increase the soil’s ability to hold water because they add soil aggregates, or make the soil more porous. Cover crops also put more roots into the soil, which increase the organic matter present and fees the soil.

“I think one of the first things we have to recognize here is that the soil is alive,” Fuhrer said. “And if it’s alive, it’s eating, it needs to eat and it has a home.”

Soil diversity is one of the most important benefits of cover crops, Fuhrer said, because those crops provide a better diet for the soil.

Increasing the number of plant species grown on a field will remedy a poor soil diet.

Cover crops pay for themselves in higher cash crop yields and better soil structure. Producers should explore their cover crop options.

The No. 1 thing producers need to do is be talking to their crop insurance agents and make sure they don’t violate some of their insurance coverage rules.

National Crop Insurance Services (NCIS) has rules as to what’s acceptable and unacceptable for prevent plant acres.

Any cover crop that gets planted, if the producer has intent to hay or graze it before Nov. 1 of the current year, they are subject to losing 65 percent of their prevent plant payment.

The acceptable cover crops vary as well. Alfalfa, soybeans, corn and dual purpose sorghums are generally unacceptable.

There are producers that might think they are planting a cover crop like a sudan or something to that effect, which is a really gray area.

Non-prevent plant acres are not subject to such rules.

That, as far as crop insurance is concerned, is not a problem because it is truly a cover crop and you haven’t received payment from that land.

No matter what, producers need to consult their crop insurance agent before planting any cover crop.