Cover crops, are quick-growing crops, such as winter rye or clover, that are planted between periods of regular crop production to prevent soil erosion and provide humus or nitrogen. Cover crops help increase productivity and profitability, and help improve water quality on Minnesota farms.
There is a surprising lack of cover crop acreage on the Minnesota landscape. This is primarily due to:
To overcome these obstacles, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is working with creative farmers to find ways to fit cover crops into Minnesota farming systems and increase cover crop acres in Minnesota. We have found ways to make this happen by encouraging farmers to establish cover crops after canning crops, drilling after silage, aerially seeding into row crops, and adding to fresh market vegetables and organic systems.
Jump to - Learn More About Cover Crops: Soil Health and Environmental Benefits ; Where Do Cover Crops Fit in Your Farming System? - continued ; Aerial Seeding ; What We Are Working on? ; More Information on Cover Crops
The environmental benefits of cover crops are well documented:
Winter rye after canning crop harvest.
Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
Farmers can gain economic returns by grazing cover crops or harvesting the cover crop as green chop. Other associated benefits include using the cover crop ground as a manure application site, improving soil quality and soil organic matter.
Cows grazing on rye cover crop in the last week of April. This reduces pressure on the permanent pasture. Notice
overgrazed permanent pasture in foreground. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
Aerial seeding winter rye into standing row crops. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
A graphic comparison of what can be done to prevent erosion.
On the left is a strip-till field with rye cover that has been
planted to soybeans. On the right is a field where conventional
tillage is practiced. Photo courtesy Ray Rauenhorst.
Mark Zumwinkle, MDA, Adam Herges and Melissa Wilson, University of Minnesota (UMN), are working to improve the dependability of aerial seeding (or overseeding). They are cooperating with southeast Minnesota farmers to seed a winter rye cover crop in standing field corn, sweet corn, and soybeans using a helicopter. Rye planted in late October or early November results in unreliable regrowth the following spring. In contrast, rye seeded in late summer germinates in the understory of the cash crop and produces a strong stand when the cash crop is removed. The helicopter is able to negotiate variable terrain and seed relatively small acreages.
For more information on aerial seeding, read the Aerial Seeding Winter Rye brochure (PDF: 6 MB / 2 pages) and a presentation on winter rye aerial seeding into corn and soybeans - a project with Minnesota farmers Andy Hart and Ray Rauenhorst - Ray Rauenhorst Project: Airplane Seeding Winter Rye into Strip-till Corn and Soybeans (PDF: 4 MB / 31 pages).
In addition, read about Andy Hart’s and Ray Rauenhorst’s experience with aerial seeding of rye:
Rye emerging in soybeans in the first week of September. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
Combining soybeans with a healthy stand of aerially seeded rye in the understory. Photo courtesy Andy Hart.
Rye emerging in harvested sweet corn.
Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
For information about how cover crops can be a tool to fight soil erosion, read the brochure Are You Covered? Stop Soil Erosion on Canning and Row Crop Acres Ext (by Mark Zumwinkle).
Ray Rauenhorst has used cover crops to prevent water and wind erosion on the landscape, included are some of his photos:
A very dense stand of rye on 4-23-02. It should be burned down with Roundup® at this stage. Photo courtesy Ray Rauenhorst.
Fall rye that was strip-tilled in the fall. The planter used DAWN® row cleaners to clear the path for the row of corn. Again, this field is not going to erode from either wind or water. The track between the rows has been made by spring side dressing of 28% nitrogen solution. Photo courtesy Ray Rauenhorst.
Check out the rest of Ray Rauenhorst’s photos on how he prevents water and wind erosion using cover crops.
Our plans for the next 5 years include working to document the environmental benefits of cover crops on the landscape including:
An alfalfa living mulch is cut and mechanically
delivered to the base of a cash crop of broccoli.
Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle.
MDA Conservation Practices/Cover Crops (Conservation Funding Guide)
MDA Cover Crop Resources (Minnesota Farm Opportunities/Ag Opportunities on the Air)
Mark Zumwinkle, Soil Scientist/Researcher
Mark.Zumwinkle@state.mn.us ~ 651-201-6240
Ag Marketing & Development Division