Wheat harvest opens window for cover crop establishment

Cover crop choices following wheat harvest.

After wheat is harvested, farmers have an excellent opportunity to establish a cover crop and capture the many benefits they can provide. Choosing the right cover crop species following winter wheat will depend on what benefits are needed, what species will work in your farming system and how you plan on managing the cover crop. All are important considerations when selecting the most suitable cover crop species.

Adding cover crops to a cropping system can help improve soil health. Putting more living plants into the system and eliminating the brown gaps when there are no living roots in the soil will help maintain water, carbon and nutrient cycles in the soil and enhance soil biota. These living plant roots have a region of soil that surrounds the root called the rhizosphere. A major influence of the rhizosphere is the release of organic compounds into the soil from the roots. These compounds attract soil organisms that use these exudates as a food source.

The more living roots in the soil from diverse plant species, the greater the diversity in type and number of organisms in the vicinity of the roots. These soil organisms decompose organic material such as plant residues, store nitrogen, improve soil aggregation and porosity and influence every aspect of decomposition and nutrient cycling in the soil. Practices that increase the number of soil organisms and create a favorable environment such as adding cover crops can improve soil health.

Choosing the right cover crops can be just as important as selecting corn, soybean or wheat varieties that are planted. Each cover crop species has different attributes as well as challenges. The Michigan State University Extension fact sheet, “Cover Crop Choices Following Winter Wheat,” is an excellent resource to help in the decision making process. Another good source is the Midwest Cover Crop Council Selector Tool.

For more information on cover crops, contact Dean Baas at baas@msu.edu, Christina Curell at curellc@anr.msu.edu or me at grossp@anr.msu.edu.

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