Even though the fall harvest is in, winter season is still a critical one for your farm. For instance, you can repair grain facilities to better fit long-term storage needs. There’s also a second project just as important but often ignored – planting winter cover crops.
Cover crops can prevent erosion, improve your soil’s fertility and create a better seedbed for spring planting. A 1998 report from Dupont Pioneer found a 12 bushel decrease in corn yield when the field was empty before planting. And if you want more recent data, a 2016 report from the University of Missouri found the same thing.
The issue, according to Missouri’s report, is that empty fields have less mycorrhizae fungus, which offers nutrients for corn, wheat and other grains. If you have more of the fungus, your field is better prepared for spring.
It’s not a one size fits all situation, however. Before planting, before even choosing which cover crops to buy, you have to determine what meets your field’s needs. And the good news is that you can solve all these issues and do it relatively cheaply. How? Well, let’s take a look.
The Two Winters
There are two winters that hit farms each year. The familiar one brings frost and snow from November through March, but there’s a winter arriving before that. Seed winter covers about six weeks from harvest to the first hard frost of the year. It’s at this point you can start planning and planting cover crops. Now that doesn’t mean it’s too late to plant a crop this year. You can still plant a cover crop up through the first heavy frost period.
The Experts’ Favorites
The Midwest Cover Crops Council recommends a variety of recipes, but rye is one of the top choices. According to the Council’s website, rye “excels at loosening compacted soil and is good for weed suppression.” It also catches any excess nitrogen in the soil. Another winter favorite is crimson or red clover. Both help improve your field’s soil structure.
A 2014 report from Purdue University’s Crop Diagnostics Center goes into more detail. The best option in winter, according to the report, is false flax. Also known as winter camelina, it’s a member of the mustard family, one that can survive in freezing temperatures as low as 15 degrees.
There’s also buckwheat if you want a faster growing option. Now with this choice, you have to plant much earlier. That means October or early November, because it needs a temperature of at least 45 degrees to grow. It can survive in 30-degree temperatures once it breaks ground, but needs warmer conditions in early days.
Winter Kill or Winter Hardy Crops?
When it comes to winter cover crops, you have to pick one of two options. Do you want a crop that winter kills or do you want something that will survive until spring? It may sound bizarre, but both are beneficial, as this grower’s library explains.
When I say winter-killed crops, I mean those wiped out by temperatures under 30 degrees. While the plant is dead, its mass is large enough to still protect the soil from erosion. The rotting material will also provide nitrogen for the soil as it breaks down. Oats and field peas are good examples of this, along with oilseed radish. All of them will keep growing through November, but slowly die off after about the fifth or sixth heavy frost.
The second option is the “winter hardy” version, the type of crop that will still be around come spring. This includes the rye I talked about earlier, as well as Austrian winter peas, alfalfa and hairy vetch. Vetch introduces a lot of nitrogen to the soil and can survive nearly any temperatures. So unless the thermometer drops to 20 below or something extreme, vetch will still be around come March or April.
The Two Best Winter Hardy Options
According to both the Purdue study and the Midwest Council, rye and vetch are the best two options for winter cover crops. There is a catch with the “winter hardy” crops, however. When spring comes, you’ll have to completely plow them under. Otherwise, they’ll just keep growing and take over parts of your field.
Plan for the Future
Now when you start using winter cover crops, planning ahead is critical. As I mentioned above, this practice can help increase cash crop yields significantly. With unpredictable markets right now, that’s a recipe for storage shortages. The best way to protect your assets is to control the condition of your stored grain. And the best way to do that is with grain temperature monitoring. Temperature control is essential to grain condition. The better your grain storage environment, the longer you’re able to store your grain without spoilage.