10 Potential Cover Crop Pitfalls

cover crops collage
When Indiana farmer Jason Wykoff’s use of cover crops created challenges for his cash crop, he didn’t let setbacks deter his goal of improving soil health. He grows cover crops on one-third of his 4,000-acre farm. He plans to eventually convert at least 75% of his acres to cover crops.

“You need to have a plan A, plan B and plan C before you even seed the cover crop,” Wykoff says. “Moments of panic and failures have led us to do a better job of planning.”

Set your farm up for success by knowing common pitfalls to establishing cover crops and avoid them with proper planning and goals in mind.

“The No. 1 failure I’ve seen is when producers are interested in cover crops and just jump in without knowing what they want to accomplish,” says Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska Extension engineer.

Think Through Scenarios That Might Set You Back

Inability to Manage Cover Crops
“First, choose a cover crop system that matches the management system on your farm,” says Marc Eads, Spearhead A&M agronomy consultant in northern Indiana. For example, cover crops can fail if you don’t have the ability to plant them in a timely manner.

Choking Cash Crops With Residue
“Be ready to deal with extra residue,” Eads says. If you’re not prepared to manage the foliage, your cover crops might thrive and cause your cash crop to fail. Consider looking at different residue movers or making adjustments to create a stable seedbed in the spring.

Letting Cover Crops Grow Too Long
Consider buying a sprayer because some cover crops grow fast and you might not be able to wait. “Rye could be 6" today and 12" in three days,” says Jasa. “By the time the co-op can get there it could be 6'.”

Tying Up Nitrogen
When cover crops grow too long they can tie up nitrogen, starving young cash crop seedlings. Microbes have more work to do to break down the cover crop residue. Nitrogen might need to be injected below the surface instead of broadcast over the crop.

Starving Cover Crops
Know cover crop nutrient requirements and what nutrients are left in the soil after your cash crop. Just like cash crops, some cover crops require more nitrogen. If you don’t feed them what they need you might not establish a sound stand.

Failure to Kill Cover Crops
“We’ve had to plant into conditions I’m not 100% comfortable with because we didn’t terminate the cover in time,” says Wykoff. To get the cash crop in on time he’s had to make tough decisions and now works hard to make sure crops are terminated on time.

Killing Cash Crops from Shading
A lack of sunlight can kill yield in your cash crop. Look into rollers to flatten the cover crop and provide seedlings with adequate sunlight.

Loss of Soil Health Benefits
“You lose cover crops’ soil benefit when you bale up cover,” Jasa says. “We need that residue to build up the soil.”

Following With the Wrong Crop
“Don’t follow cereal rye with corn,” Eads says. “Rye needs to be terminated way in advance of corn because of allopathic effects in the soil. Also remember, sunflowers can carry white mold to soybeans.”

Picking Weed Infested Seed
Avoid bringing weeds onto your farm by working with well-known seed suppliers. 

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