Vegetable growers: This could be the year for cover crops

Reduced planting acres provides windows for a wide variety of beneficial cover crops.


With all the potential uncertainties of labor, markets and other concerns facing vegetable producers in 2020, there is a high probability many vegetable growers will be reducing the number of planted acres. This will no doubt be only a temporary pause in most grower’s production cycle, but what will happen to those unplanted fields?

As the sayings go, “Every cloud has a silver lining” and “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” What good can be found in not being able to plant and harvest a crop? In a previous article, I wrote about my concerns in always chasing yield and I listed other options to consider, one being soil building through cover crops. This could be the year to take that step.


Many vegetable production fields have sandy soils that are low in organic matter, resulting in sites prone to drought and erosion. This would be a good year to identify those sites and plant them to cover crops. A standard soil test will identify low organic matter sandy soils. If the site has a cation exchange capacity (CEC) less than 4, that indicates a site with low organic matter, silt or clay content. In any case, it needs help!

Many vegetable sites have also had multiple years of various fumigation products applied to them. The benefits growers experience with fumigation come with a price. Fumigation also affects much of the biology needed to maintain healthy soil. Soil biology is quite resilient, however, and it is amazing how quickly it recovers when live roots are continually present as part of the soil biology.

Cover crop field
Photo by Mr.1032, CC BY-SA 4.0

Once vegetable producers identify sites they will not plant in 2020, they should follow with an active cover crop program. The first thought for most vegetable growers is to plant annual rye grass. This is a cover crop commonly used by vegetable growers because it is cheap, easy to manage, and can still be planted in late fall. Having fallow fields provides a spring, summer and fall planting window, so this is a year when cover crops with multiple benefits could be used.

The Midwest Cover Crop Council website is a good starting place. To begin your search, click on the Selector Tools tab and then select the Vegetable Crops window. That will take you to a menu where you can then get more specific on goals you wish to accomplish.

Visiting the MSU Extension Cover Crops website will also be helpful, as will a call to your local MSU Extension office, Soil Conservation District office or a member of the MSU Extension cover crops team.

Much of what you will see under cover crop suggestions will be single species plantings. That is because it is easier to conduct research one species at a time. Multi-species trials are more complicated but many growers are trying multi-species mixes. The goal with cover crops is to have something growing at all times, and single species covers are limited whereas multi-species are generally a mix of warm and cool season crops. Try both, but whatever you do, I encourage you to make your decision quickly and get your seed ordered.

It may be tempting to do nothing due to perceived costs, but in the end this is not a very good option. Improving your soil now will have benefits later. Look at it as a learning opportunity to experience for yourself what cover crop enthusiasts have been telling you for years.

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