How Do You Choose the Best Winter Cover Crop for Your Situation?

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Corn harvest is underway in most of North Carolina and tobacco fields are being stripped as harvest season kicks into high gear. That means it is time to get those winter cover crops in the ground and the sooner the better. Not only do cover crops help prevent erosion and keep our friends at NRCS happy, they also scavenge leftover nitrogen and help to suppress weed growth. In fact, cover crops can be one of our best friends when it comes to suppressing pigweed emergence in the fall, that could possibly make a crop of millions of seeds before the first frost.

Many of us here in North Carolina have diversified farms, raising a variety of crops, as well as livestock. Choosing the right cover crop will not only benefit our fields, but can also be a feedstock for our livestock. If fencing is in place around fields where crops have been grown, a cover crop can provide a high quality standing forage during the winter months. This increased quality not only benefits our livestock, but in many cases it can reduce costs by increasing our ability to graze during the winter months compared to feeding costly hay. If you do not have fencing, choosing the right cover crop can provide you with a harvestable feed supplement.

There are several options when choosing winter cover crops and each have different benefits. It is important to find a cover crop that will work on your farm for your situation. Small grains have traditionally been a go-to cover crop. They offer versatility in that they can be used as either a forage, cut for grain, or cut for silage. Options include wheat, rye, oats, and triticale. Each grain can be grazed both in the fall, if planted early enough, and again in the spring before eventually being harvested for hay or silage. Rye produces a high amount of biomass production, which is excellent at helping to suppress weeds and also offers flexibility in planting times as it can be planted relatively late in the year. Oats offer a fast germination, which helps them to compete with emerging weeds. Wheat is an excellent scavenger of excess nutrients in the soil. Each of the small grains offer good nutritive values and digestibility, so it is important to find one that works best on your farm. When growing as a forage, consider planting a mix of small grains. Since the crop will not be harvested and sold as a cash crop, it is not necessary to choose just one species. A variety of species can offer variability in maturity rate, extending your grazing season.

Ryegrass is another option for excellent cover crop forage. It is easy to grow, has an extensive root system which helps it gather nutrients in the soil. It has an excellent forage quality and can recover quickly after a grazing event. Ryegrass also has the ability to survive in very wet conditions, which can sometimes arise during North Carolina winters.

Small grains and grasses are not our only option for cover crops. Clovers can be mixed with any of the grains or ryegrass to increase forage quality and provide nitrogen credits. Turnips are another cover crop option, which produce a high quality digestible forage, with potential digestibility between 80-90%. Turnips are an excellent option for strip grazing, as animals should be adjusted to grazing such a lush forage. Turnips though should not constitute more than 75% of the animal’s diet and a lower quality forage should be supplied to prevent problems such as bloat.

Perhaps our best cover crops options are mixed systems. A mix of turnips, ryegrass or small grains, and clover winter peaprovides a pasture with the benefits of a lush, high protein forage with the safety and balance of a palatable grass. Mixed cover crops can also be an option to consider when growing a crop for grain. Recent research has shown the potential for a mixed crop of wheat and winter pea. When planted together, wheat and winter pea can be successfully harvested with a combine. The resulting harvested grain offers a higher nutritive value than wheat alone.

When choosing a cover crop for your farm, consider an option that will benefit both your land and your livestock. If space allows, consider planting several cover crops. Not only will that allow rotational grazing as different crops become available to graze at different times, but it will also allow you to find the right cover crop on your farm.

NCSU Extension