Has the king crop been dethroned?
The king of cover crops has been overtaken by the prince of cover crops.
Cereal rye has long been the king when we it comes to cover crop choice for Michigan farmers. Other species are commonly used but cereal rye has been the one that covers the most acres, mostly due to timing. Cereal rye, not to be confused with annual ryegrass, is a hardy plant that can germinate and grow in cool temperatures and a variety of soil types. Even in Northern Michigan we can plant cereal rye after corn harvest and in the spring it will grow.
This year when the Michigan State University Cover Crop Team surveyed seed dealers it seems that rye has been dethroned. Oats squeezed past cereal rye in planted acres. Oats should be planted earlier than cereal rye and this past fall proved to be excellent for growing oats. Like rye it will grow under variable soil conditions. One big advantage of oats over rye is that in most winters it will winter kill. In some places this year it did survive the winter. Oats can be controlled using herbicides or by tillage when they do overwinter.
Was this an unusual year or are we seeing a new trend? It is hard to make that call. Talking to some growers they wanted to use oats because of previous experience with killing the rye. There was also an increase in oilseed radish plantings. A good companion to the radish is oats. They both usually winter kill. Organic farms also like oats since they cannot use herbicides, rye can easily become a pest if it is not killed in a timely manner.
Who will be the king this year? Time will tell. Both cereal rye and oats are going to be an important cover crop in the state no matter what happens. They both will help build up soil and protect our waters from erosion. Both of these cover crops are better than leaving your fields open through the winter.
If you are considering putting a cover crop into your rotation consider all of your options. Each cover crop has advantages and disadvantages. The best thing for a farm manager to do is to determine what their objective is and then fit a cover crop into the plan. For more help integrating cover crops into your rotation you can use the online Cover Crop Decision Tool or contact Paul Gross, firstname.lastname@example.org or Christina Curell, email@example.com.