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Getting started with cover crops

This page focuses on cover crops in commodity crop systems. For vegetable production, including home gardens, see Cover crop selection for vegetable growers.

When getting started with cover crops, the best approach is to keep it simple. Try one or two species of cover crops and plant them in early-harvested fields to set up the fields for long-term success. In some years, moisture or temperature may limit cover crop growth, so it’s important to experiment with the system for a few years to get a feel for the possibilities. 

Talk to local Extension staff, your Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) or Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to go over your cover crop plan. Make sure your agronomist, landlord, lender and farm employees understand the plan and have a chance to ask questions.

Try these recipes for low-risk first-time cover crop options. For a summary by species of Minnesota-based research, see the Minnesota Office for Soil Health Cover Crop Guide.


Cover crops are best suited to low- or no-till systems. No-till soybeans are easier to start with than no-till corn, but it’s still important to go over your planter systems for residue management and row closing.

Planning for a no-till crop starts at harvest the year before, as it’s important to leave as much corn residue upright instead of chopped and distributed. The chopped residue stays wet and cool longer than unchopped, vertical corn stubble.

Learn more about reducing tillage and incorporating cover crops in the soil health video series and the Upper Midwest Tillage Guide.

Setting goals for cover crops

What are your goals for cover crops? This will affect your choice of species. Below are some common goals and suggestions to achieve them.

Erosion control

Plant something fast-growing, like oats, or use cereal rye if you want to make sure to protect your soil from spring rains.

Nitrate scavenging

Cereal rye reliably produces the most biomass of cover crops grown in Minnesota, so it’s a good choice for maximizing the uptake of soil nutrients.

Nutrient provision to cash crop

Winterkilling broadleaves like radishes or turnips are more likely to break down quickly and provide nutrients the following spring. Legumes like hairy vetch or clovers can build organic N in the soil.

Forage production

Plant a higher seeding rate of a mix of grasses and broadleaf plants to get both forage dry matter and nutrient content.

Compaction reduction

Brassicas like turnips and radishes have good taproots to break up a plow pan, but make sure you plant them early enough (after wheat or canning crops) to get good growth.

Weed control

Weed control with cover crops requires excellent stands (<1000 lb biomass/ac) to out-compete spring-emerging weeds. A high rate of cereal rye is recommended.

Terminating by roller-crimping could enhance that smothering action, but must be done at precise timing to ensure full rye termination.

Choosing a cover crop

The Midwest Cover Crop Council’s selection tool for Minnesota evaluates the pros and cons of different species. Start with one or two cover crops to get acquainted with their benefits. Expensive seed mixes aren’t necessary. The most popular choice in Minnesota is cereal rye, as it germinates at cool temperatures and grows fast in the spring.


Authors: Anna Cates, Extension educator, and Jill Sackett

Reviewed in 2023

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