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Spring management of cover crops

field of ankle high cereal rye, dormant trees in background
Winter cereal rye on May 7, 2013. It was established Aug. 24, 2012 as an aerially broadcast cover crop mix into standing soybean.

Spring management of cover crops is as varied as farming operations across Minnesota. A farmer’s plan of action will largely be determined by two things:

  1. The reason for using cover crops in the first place.

  2. The specific cover crops planted.

Possible scenarios

A farmer who wants to graze livestock in the spring may have planted winter cereal rye as a cover crop. Spring management in this situation will likely include letting the cattle graze the winter cereal rye for a few weeks, terminating the cover crop with an herbicide or tillage, and planting a cash crop that can successfully be grown with a late May planting date.

A second example might be a corn or soybean farmer who’s new to cover crops and interested in interseeding annual ryegrass and red clover into standing corn in mid-June at the V6 stage of corn (six corn leaves have visible leaf collars).

While red clover regularly overwinters in Minnesota, annual ryegrass winter survival depends on planting date and winter weather conditions. If planted in June, there’s a good chance that annual ryegrass will overwinter to some extent.

Spring management in this situation would likely include waiting until air and soil temperatures reach the requirements on the herbicide label for application and when the annual ryegrass and red clover ideally are 4 to 8 inches tall.

Cover crop termination

Cover crops that typically don’t overwinter include spring small grains (e.g., oats, spring wheat), some legumes (e.g., crimson clover, field pea) and some non-leguminous broadleaves (e.g., buckwheat, oilseed radish).

However, be aware that some winter cover crops that are normally winter-killed may survive into the spring. For example, some cold-tolerant cover crops like turnips may overwinter if there’s plenty of snow cover. There may be a few scattered plants or a patch in a protected area.

Another possibility is spring germination of seed that didn’t germinate in the fall. When this occurs, handle the cover crop as if it were a winter-hardy cover. Winter-hardy cover crops, including winter cereal rye, winter wheat and hairy vetch, go dormant over the winter and begin growing again in the spring.

Poor fall growth or harsh, open winters may result in winter-kill for some of these plants. Spotty or limited spring growth can be especially common with hairy vetch.

Approaches to termination

If cover crops are winter-hardy, have a plan in place that includes chemical and/or mechanical termination in the spring.

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Residue management

The amount of residue left in the spring will depend on which cover crops you used and when you planted them.

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Timing of termination and planting

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Lizabeth Stahl, Extension educator and Jill Sackett Eberhart, former Extension educator

Reviewer

Jodi DeJong-Hughes, Extension educator

Acknowledgments

Content was developed as part of the Southeast Minnesota Cover Crop and Soil Health Initiatives. Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

Reviewed in 2018

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