3 tips for planting cover crops this fall

A guest post by Dustin Madison. Dustin advises FarmRaise on conservation planning, funding programs, and farmer engagement. Dustin leads operations for a 20,000 acre farm in Virginia, and is a certified Technical Service Provider for row crops and nutrient management systems. He’s been dubbed the “OG of climate-smart agriculture” by Politico.

Cover crops can serve many purposes on the farm. They reduce runoff, capture nutrients that leach from the soil, and suppress early spring weeds.  Recently, cover crops have received a lot of attention for their potential as tools to pull carbon from the air and sequester it beneath the soil’s surface. Yet, today, cover crops are only utilized on about 5% of US cropland acres. 

So, if there are so many benefits of using this most-talked about conservation practice, why aren’t they used on more acres?

One reason is that raising a successful cover crop takes planning, time, and money.  It is difficult to find farm funding to cover the cost of planting cover crops on your own, while you’re also navigating harvest. And, after a long growing season chalk full of its own risk, getting a cover crop planted often takes a backseat. 

Here are three things to think about before the cash crops are ready to harvest, that will help when it comes to getting over the cover crop hump.

#1: Pick your crop type, and procure the seed. 

Cover crops can be as easy as planting a cereal like rye or as complex as mixing 5, 6 or 7+ different kinds of seeds to increase the biodiversity in a field.  Start out simple to not over complicate things.  The only bad cover is no cover at all. We definitely recommend that you find farm funding through grants that can help you cover the cost of seed.

#2: Decide how to plant it. 

While some areas may get too cold, too early, most of the US can seed cover crops late in the year.  Drilling seed after harvest is the most effective way to assure there is good soil contact, but it is also the most time-consuming method.  Broadcasting seed after harvest is much faster, but will likely require some type of minimal tillage to cover the seed. That means a second pass, with another piece of equipment.  Keep in mind that many farm funding opportunities will help you cover the cost of planting the cover crop.

#3: Treat your cover crop right.

Remember, the cover crop has the same basic needs as the cash crop.  It needs water and heat to germinate and grow.  The best way to provide for those needs is to get planting done as early as possible.  Seeding three or four weeks before freezing temperatures settle in will usually allow enough time for the cover crop to get a good start.

Anxious to get started, but want to get a little financial assistance, too? Sign up for FarmRaise to learn about and apply for grant funding for planting cover crops. Or read our post about funding options for cover crops here.

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