Cover crops play vital role in farm production

OSCEOLA COUNTY — While it may seem unnecessary to plant a crop that will never be harvested, planting cover crops during the fall can yield improved results in the next year’s growing season

That is the message agriculture experts had for local farmers during a farm tour organized by Michigan State University Extension on Wednesday. A group of approximately 40 farmers listened as MSU Extension educators, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service officials and ag business representatives visited three farms, one each in Clare, Lake and Mecosta counties.

Cover crop varieties include cereal rye, radishes and red clover. Having a cover crop helps preserve nutrients in the soil during the winter, said Christina Curell, a Lake County MSU Extension educator and expert in cover crops who helps farmers across Michigan.

“The goal is to never have a field bare,” Curell said. “You can keep (crops in) 11 months out of the year.”

Cover crops are usually planted following fall harvest, ideally between Aug. 15 and Sept. 1, said Steven Houghton, vice president of Cisco Companies and seed division manager.

Cover crops draw moisture into the soil, and holds it there for use by spring crops.

“The big thing is to be as efficient as possible with water,” Houghton said. “During a rainstorm, instead of the water draining off, you want it to go into the soil.”

Clover crops draw the water down, especially in July (when it is dry), he added. “That (water) goes straight toward the bottom line.”

Some studies have shown that planting radishes at the same time as wheat in the spring can increase yield because of how the two interact, Houghton added.

When the cover crop dies, the nutrients it had absorbed go right back into the soil for use by the spring crop. Which variety of cover crop to use and at what time depends on the planned crop rotation plan the farmer has established, Curell noted.

In the last three years, more than 20,000 acres of cover crops have been planted in Michigan. That is on the low side because it is based on voluntarily reported numbers, she added.

Backyard vegetable gardens can benefit from having a winter cover crop.

“Oats winter kill grow really well,” she said. “And they’ll die on their own.”

Seed for the oats can be found locally at places such as Big Rapids Farm and Garden Supply in five and 10-pound bags, Curell added.