Close-up of cover crops growing between rows winter wheat stubble

Now is the time to consider cover crop options after small grain harvest.

Small grain harvest is nearly completed across Pennsylvania. Instead of letting the field sit idle if you do not plan to double crop, planting a cover crop is recommended.

Maintaining an actively growing root system in the soil year-round improves soil quality, while the growing cover crop keeps weeds down and can fix or recycle nitrogen for next year’s crop.

Here are some options to consider.

Hairy vetch mixed with oats, to be established by mid- to late August. The oats will winterkill, and the hairy vetch will survive the winter and take off in the spring.

Another option is crimson clover mixed with annual ryegrass or triticale in mid- to late August. Both species survive the winter and the mix can supply excellent forage.

Oats and triticale or rye established as soon as the small grain is harvested is another choice. The oats might be harvested in the fall, making excellent forage, whereas the winter small grain will survive the winter.

Faba beans and tillage radish established immediately after small grain harvest is another idea. Faba beans have large seeds and need to be established with a planter in alternating rows with the tillage radish, preferably on 15-inch row spacing. The tillage radish might be mixed in the box with another species such as rye to provide cover in the spring.

A final option to consider tillage radish and Austrian pea. This mixture is likely to winterkill, but it makes for some excellent cover and provides significant nitrogen fixation if established now.

These are just some suggestions that can be expanded upon by using your imagination. It is important to make sure that the planter or drill is set to place the seed at the right depth and get good closure of the seed slot. If the soil is dry, high penetration resistance calls for extra weight on the drill or planter and heavy down-pressure springs. If the soil is moist, extra attention is needed to slot closure. Slugs are present, and if we hit a wet period they can do significant damage, even in the summer. If seed slots are not closed properly, slugs will have the greatest potential to cause stand loss by destroying the germinating seeds.

Leon Ressler is a Penn State Extension educator based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

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