Planting corn in 2022 into a living red clover cover crop that was terminated with herbicides after planting. In this scenario, supplementing with 60 pounds synthetic nitrogen per acre was enough to produce 250 bushels per acre corn yields. Photo by Tyson Robbins.
- Hairy vetch ($40-70 per acre) is often considered the best cover crop if nitrogen fixation is the primary goal and can provide most or all the nitrogen needed for a subsequent corn crop. The tradeoff is that hairy vetch typically has some seed that doesn’t germinate right away and can grow in future years, which can become a weed in other crops. Herbicides are typically very effective at controlling hairy vetch that grows in subsequent crops.
- Red clover ($20-40 per acre) has historically been “frost seeded” in late winter in wheat crops. The clover plants germinate, but then remain mostly dormant until the wheat is harvested. Red clover is difficult but not impossible to terminate with herbicides but can be a reliable and low-cost legume cover crop.
- Crimson clover ($12-38 per acre) is an annual that can be planted after wheat harvest and is easier to terminate the following spring. Winter survival is not as reliable as some other legumes.
- Several warm season legumes such as cowpeas, sunn hemp and soybeans ($30-70 per acre) can be planted after crop harvest in the summer and will die with the onset of fall frost. These warm season legumes require hot weather to thrive, which can be variable in Michigan summers.
- A multitude of other legumes have been tried and can work in the right situation, including peas, balansa clover, berseem clover, lentils, chickpeas and sweet clover.
Strip cover cropping is a unique approach that utilizes different species of cover crops in rows that are strategically placed in relation to the cash crop that will follow. This instance shows hairy vetch planted on 60-inch centers with cereal rye in between. Squash was planned as the strip following crop in this field. Photo by Brook Wilke, MSU Extension.
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