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Spring-planted cover crops an option

Tom J. Bechman hand holding a pea seedling
SPRING COVERS: A legume like winter or spring pea can be planted successfully early in the spring as a cover crop.
Salute Soil Health: You can still achieve benefits by planting cover crops in the spring.

Cover crops are generally planted after harvest or into standing cash crops in late summer. They’re also popular after wheat harvest if you don’t double-crop soybeans. Have you ever considered spring-planted cover crops?

The late Mike Plumer, a former University of Illinois Extension educator and cover crop expert, once stated that he had planted cover crops in almost every month of the year.

Perhaps you didn’t get cover crops planted in the fall like you intended. Or maybe your fall-planted covers didn’t come up as well as you hoped, and you’d like to interseed additional species. What can be gained by planting cover crops in the spring?

Obviously, you don’t get winter erosion control or benefits of roots growing all winter. But there are some benefits from planting in the spring. A spring-seeded cover crop can be an effective way to achieve your goals. If you have livestock and need early spring or summer forage, cover crops could help fill that need.

Selecting cover crop species

What can you plant? Obviously, not every species is suitable to plant in the spring. Versatile spring oats is a great option, whether by themselves or with radish. Annual ryegrass is also a good option, again either alone or with radish. If using annual ryegrass, be sure you understand the intricacies of termination.

If you would like to plant a legume, winter or spring peas can be planted in the spring. To get the maximum amount of nitrogen, allow them to grow to maturity before termination. Just make sure you use the appropriate inoculum for the legume you plant.

Cereal rye can be planted in the spring but will not obtain the growth or biomass like it does when planted in the fall since it didn’t go through vernalization over winter. There are spring varieties of triticale, which will provide excellent late-spring forage. Make sure you’re getting a spring variety and not a winter variety.

Planting tips for spring

As far as the actual planting process, species like annual ryegrass, balansa clover and cereal rye can be frost-seeded in late winter, possibly using a UTV with a broadcast spreader. Those mornings when the soil is frozen until right after lunch before becoming greasy are the most opportune time for frost seeding.

If you plan to wait for spring, plant as early as possible, when ground conditions allow. You want as much seed-to-soil contact as possible to ensure quick germination. As with fall-planted cover crops, the longer you wait prior to termination, the more overall benefit you will get.

The adage that any cover crop is better than no cover crop rings true with spring-planted covers. If you did not get all your covers planted last fall, consider planting some covers in the spring to get some of the available benefits.

For more information on bringing cover crops into your system, contact your local soil and water conservation district or Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

Donovan is a district conservationist with NRCS. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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