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Even though we had decent cover crop planting conditions last fall, you may have a field or two that didn’t get seeded. You might be asking if it’d be worthwhile to plant cover crops in the spring. There are certainly some scenarios that would make sense if you can work them into your cropping plans in the next few weeks.

Planting Window

Since you want to maximize growth potential, you need to get your spring cover crops planted as soon as the ground is fit to plant. Target cash crop fields that will be planted later in order to allow time for the cover crops to grow. You may get some weed control or nitrogen from the legume portion of a cover cover mix, but not as much as compared to fall-planted covers. This sets up an ideal scenario to plant your cash crop into a green cover crop, or “planting green.”

Species Selection

Field peas (spring or winter) and oats are by far the most popular to be planted in the early spring. A newer species, black oats, also performs well. Mustards and brassicas germinate in cool soils and are considered an option for spring cover crops. Graza Radish is one that does really well, planted early on. Chickling Vetch is a legume that does well as an early season cover crop. Phacelia is probably new to many, but it grows well when planted in March and April. It’s a premium soil builder and top-notch beneficial insect attractant if that’s what you are trying to accomplish. Cereal rye is not a good choice, as it will not put on as much biomass as spring oats. I’ve been asked many times if buckwheat is a good early spring cover. The answer is no! At least don’t plant until the last threat of frost is clearly past. It doesn’t like chilly weather.

Freeze Seeding

Even though the soil can be nearly fit, there are days when it’s just too smeary to plant. But if the temperature dips into the mid-20s overnight for a few hours, you can do what we call “freeze-seeding.” Either start late into the night or very early in the morning before the sun comes up, and use a no-till drill to cut through the slightly frozen soil. This keeps the drill openers and closing wheels clean and free of mud. I’ve done this at 11 p.m. or even 6 a.m. when the conditions are just right.

Between the Plastic Rows for Vegetable Growers

One concept that has been catching on over the past 10 years is for vegetable growers to plant a cover crop between the rows of plastic. Growers lay the plastic and then simply broadcast spring oats seed over those rows. The seeds laying on the bare soil quickly germinate after the first rain, and the seeds that were scattered on the plastic wash off to the edge and grow there. The cover crop can be controlled later with a grass herbicide or shielded sprayer specially designed for this purpose. Some of those rigs now have narrow cover crop rollers as well.

Pumpkin and Squash Growers

If you want to grow a cover crop before no-tilling pumpkins or squash, plant 40 pounds of field peas and 70 pounds of spring oats as soon as possible. This will help control weeds and keep your pumpkins cleaner, as well as provide a few pounds of nitrogen. But it’s not quite as effective as hairy vetch and triticale that was seeded in the fall.

Red Clover in Wheat?

Decades ago, frost seeding red clover into cash crop wheat in March was a standard practice. Most farmers now use spring-applied herbicides in their wheat, effectively eliminating this strategy to get cover crops planted in this manner. We were also told that red clover wouldn’t survive under the canopy of 100-bushel wheat. A few years ago, I had an 18-acre field of wheat that had very few winter annual weeds so I decided to use that old practice of frost-seeding red clover. It actually worked out quite well, and the field yielded 99 bushels of wheat per acre.

Spring Into Action

If you have an opportunity, and if the weather cooperates enough to get some cover crops planted this spring, be sure to take advantage of it. Every day that there are roots growing in your soil is a good day.

Steve Groff is a Holtwood, Pennsylvania, farmer and author of “The Future Proof Farm.” Learn more at

Steve Groff is a Holtwood, Pennsylvania, farmer and author of “The Future Proof Farm.” Learn more at


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