Cover Crops in a Dry Year: To Plant or Not to Plant?

With small grain harvest wrapping up across the state, many growers are considering cover crop options. Mild to severe drought conditions across much of the state are causing many concerns including cover crop planting and establishment (SD Drought Monitor). Cover crops are planted for a variety of reasons across South Dakota but two of the most prominent purposes include long term soil health benefits and fall forage grazing opportunities.

Benefits and Risks
According to SARE, cover crops manage soil moisture, promote soil structure/increase soil fauna diversity, provide N for the following cash crop, enhance residue and nutrient cycling, increase organic matter, and suppress weed germination. Cover crops can offer many benefits to your overall production system, but as most farming practices do, the benefits come at a risk. Cover crops are merited with soil moisture management, but planting timing and specie selection are an essential part of accomplishing this, especially during a dry year.

Regardless of seed choice, some topsoil moisture is needed to enable germination of any crop. Smaller seeded cover crops shouldn’t be planted exceptionally deep, but generally require less moisture to germinate than larger seeds. Therefore, important selection factors include:

  • Seed size
  • Drought tolerance
  • Economics
  • Intended purpose

If your intended 2017 cash crop is corn, a broadleaf cover crop mix should be considered; however, if you are planting soybean next year, grasses are ideal. With fall quickly approaching, a cool season blend may be more beneficial and provide more growth than warm season grasses.

Crops to Plant
Barley, wheat, and cereal rye are examples of some cool season, drought tolerant grasses; mustard and rapeseed are relatively drought tolerant cool season broadleaf crops, and field pea, vetch, and white clover may be good legume options- all appropriate for late dry July/August plantings when anticipating some improvement in topsoil moisture. For a full list of details see SARE- Cover Crops (Chart 3A).

Once plant establishment occurs, the soil is better protected from drying and erosion and the growing plants are conducive to a ‘living soil’ environment. In turn, water retention is often improved. However, remember that if moisture does not reach a planted seed, germination won’t occur, regardless of its drought tolerance abilities. The management lines are rarely black and white in production agriculture, and this decision is no exception, but proper research and decision making are key in making the best decision for your farm.

Source: Sara Berg, South Dakota State University 

Recent News

The 2020 Outlook for U.S. Agriculture From USDA’s Chief Economist

Speaking on Thursday at USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Virginia, USDA Chief Economist Robert C. Johansson provided a broad outlook for U.S. agriculture.  Today’s update provides an overview of key aspects of Dr. Johansson’s presentation. In his speech Thursday (transcript / slides), Dr. Johansson noted that, “Despite mixed signals heading into 2020, there has been important progress on the trade policy […]

Corn Prices-Farmer Holding and the Coronavirus

Old crop corn basis and futures spreads continue to signal a smaller crop scenario than the price levels in the futures market suggest.  Futures price levels reflect the uncertainty associated with the coronavirus and the potential weaker growth its continuation promises.  Producer grain holding remains the popular explanation for a strong basis and small futures […]

Highlights from USDA Trade and Commodity Outlook Reports

Following this month’s release of the USDA’s Long-Term Projections, on Thursday, the Department released its quarterly Outlook for U.S. Agricultural Trade.  This update provided an overview of agricultural trade based on the 2020 fiscal year, which began in October, months before the U.S. and China signed the Phase-One trade agreement.  Recall that Phase One farm purchase commitments are based […]

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now