Rye cover crop growing in sweet corn stubble in late fall. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
Soybean harvest with aerially seeded rye cover crop growing in the understory. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA.
Cattle grazing on aerially seeded rye cover crop in November in southeastern Minnesota. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA
Aerially seeded rye emerging in soybean understory. Photo courtesy Mark Zumwinkle, MDA
Cover crops are grasses, legumes or forbs planted to provide seasonal soil cover on cropland when the soil would otherwise be bare—i.e., before the crop emerges in spring or after fall harvest.
Common cover crops in Minnesota include rye and other small grains, buckwheat and hairy vetch. Cover crops are best suited to areas of the state with plenty of water available in the soil for both the cover crop and the main crop.
Using cover crops in Minnesota can be difficult because of the small window of opportunity to establish them. Minnesota farmers have nonetheless found creative ways to utilize cover crops, such as:
The fact sheet Are You Covered? provides more information about windows of opportunity for cover cropping in Minnesota.
Cover crops have many different uses and names, depending on the main purpose being served:
Living mulches are similar to cover crops. Living mulches are interplanted with a cash or commodity crop but stay alive throughout production of the main crop. They are typically used with specialty crops, including orchard and nursery crops.
Cover crops can be incorporated into manure management, nutrient management and pest management & especially weed control.
Organic growers typically use cover crops in rotation with other crops as part of a conservation crop rotation system. The cover crops are also an essential source of nitrogen for organic growers.
Riparian buffers such as grass filter strips and forested buffers are important complementary practices for water quality purposes. Whereas cover crops help minimize soil erosion and runoff from fields, buffers adjacent to waterways provide a second defense against water pollution by trapping and filtering any sediments and other potential pollutants that do leave the field.
Other similar or related erosion and runoff control practices covered in this Conservation Funding Guide include conservation tillage, rotational grazing and grass planting.
Guidance from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
See contacts for specific programs that fund this practice in the side-by-side payment comparison or contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District