Focus on cover crops: Options on prevented-planting fields

Many farmers across the Upper Midwest are still weighing what to do with fields that were too wet to plant this spring. Every situation is different, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

Many farmers across the Upper Midwest are still weighing what to do with fields that were too wet to plant this spring. Every situation is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

But experts say one thing is clear.

“You need to do something. You can’t let it (unplanted fields) just sit there,” says Dwight Aakre, North Dakota State University Extension farm management specialist.

Many farmers with unplanted fields will apply chemicals to kill the weeds, if they haven’t done so already, says Bob Wisness, an Arnegard, N.D., farmer and president of the state Grain Growers Association.

So-called chemical fallow “is probably the norm around here,” he says.


But he also notes growing interest in the use of cover crops. Such crops are grown primarily to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale.

Cover crops generally can be planted safely after chemical fallowing, though some chemicals carry restrictions, says Mike Gartner of Gartner Seed Farm in Mandan, N.D. Cover crops are a growing part of his business.

One of cover crops’ biggest advantages, particularly this year, is drawing what otherwise would be excess moisture from the soil.

“You’ve got to plant something to use up some of that moisture,” Gartner says.

Parts of the region have remained wet in June and July, preventing unplanted fields from drying up, he says.

“As soon as some of these fields dry up, if they do dry up, there’s going to be a huge demand for seed to plant, something that will really use water,” he says.

Cover crops also help protect against “fallow syndrome,” according to information from University of Minnesota Extension. That’s the term used when a lack of plant growth for an extended period reduces the amount of “good fungi” in the soil and limits crop growth the following year.

Some of the options


Here’s a look at what experts say are possible options for prevented-planting fields:

  • Winter wheat to be harvested next summer. The option is most attractive to farmers who have experience growing winter wheat.

  • A warm-season grass such as sudangrass to be hayed. These grasses grow rapidly, especially in  hot weather. Garntner says he’s seen sudangrass grow as much as 7 feet in six weeks. Warm-season grasses are most attractive to ag producers who raise livestock or who could easily sell the hay.

  • Cool-season grasses such as oats or barley to be grazed or hayed. These are easy to establish, and seed costs are relatively modest. One downside, however, is that the plants could advance enough to produce heads that shatter and lead to volunteer plants next spring.

  • Brassicas, including turnips and radishes, that can be grazed this fall.

  • A combination of plants geared specifically for late-season grazing.

The most cost-effective mixture for producing high-quality forage appears to be turnip, oilseed radish, conventional oats and foxtail millet, according to information from the NDSU Extension Service. The best potential for good results requires planting in the second half of July and no later than early August, according to NDSU.
Gartner advises planting some sort of cover crop through Sept 1. He notes, however, that an early frost would limit the value of doing so.

Planting a cover crop could affect prevented-planting payments, so producers need to check with their crop insurance agent and local Farm Service Agency office before making a final decision.

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