Choosing cover crops: Think like a plant!

When selecting a cover crop, consider the life cycle of different species to ensure they grow best at the time of year when planted.

Dean Baas in the cover crop variety trials
Dean Baas in the cover crop variety trials at the Kellogg Biological Station. Photo by Elizabeth Schultheis, MSU Extension.

It may seem like a challenging task to select the right cover crop species for your cropping system. There are many variables to consider, such as what crops you are growing, available planting windows and your soil health needs. A new video, released by Michigan State University Extension cover crops and soil health team, discusses one important factor to consider: the life cycle of the plant.

Every species has its own cycle of growth, setting seed and senescing that it will attempt to go through no matter when its planted. It is important to make sure you are planting a species that grows best and at the appropriate time of year. For example, summer annuals, like buckwheat and oats, will grow best in the summer and do not tolerate cold temperature. These species will reproduce during the summer period and be killed off by frost. The video below discusses “thinking like a plant” as you consider how a cover crops natural cycle will affect its performance.

For more information on selecting appropriate cover crop species, check out the resources Managing Cover Crops Profitably and the Midwest Cover Crops Council Field Guide. Cover crop information and resources are available through MSU Extension’s Cover Crops page and the Midwest Cover Crops Council, or contact Dean Baas at

This work is supported by the Crop Protection and Pest Management Program 2017-70006-27175 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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