Improved soil structure, reduced soil erosion and weed suppression are some desired benefits of cover crops. What if you’re not seeing those perks?

There are steps you can take to give your cover crops the best start. Rodney Rulon, Arcadia, Ind., has narrowed his cover crop experience down to five key tips:

1. Crop considerations.Before selecting your cover crop, keep in mind the crop that will be planted in that field next spring. For example, if you plan to plant corn, you will want to avoid species that will tie up nitrogen for too long. Rulon says to be cautious of your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

Along with crop considerations, Rulon notes that you should assess chemicals you have used to ensure the cover crop is compatible with the half-life of any residual pesticides.

2. Species selection.Match the cover crop to the season. For example, after wheat harvest, you can use warm-season covers. Rulon says to limit planting cool-season covers, like radish, to avoid having them go straight to seed rather than produce roots and tubers.

“The cover crops that we would normally seed in the fall may not fit immediately after wheat,” Rulon says. “I would maybe hold off on planting radish until the first week of August to keep them from trying to go to seed.”

Right after wheat harvest, Rulon says to go with a warm-season grass that will handle the heat well. Later in the season, after corn or late soybeans, he recommends more winter-hardy varieties like rapeseed and cereal rye.

3. Timing.Pick the right time to seed your cover crop. Rulon says there is a large window for planting cover crops. “Cover crops can go all the way from wheat interseeding up until Christmas,” he adds.

Typically, you can surface-seed cover crops earlier in the season into standing crops. Rulon defines this “early” window as two to three weeks prior to harvest. If it gets too late — closer to Christmas — he recommends ditching the expensive cover crop mixes that won’t have time to establish.

“If I’m going to put a more expensive seed like a vetch or a legume out there that needs to get well established to survive the winter, then I’m going to be hesitant to do that as it gets later,” Rulon says. “It’s not going to get enough growth to make it worth it, and it’s going to winter-kill.”

4. Planting method.Timing and planting method go hand in hand. If you can’t get cover crops planted until mid-October or later, it is key to achieve sufficient seed-to-soil contact. This would require using a drill or vertical-tillage tool with a seeder.

Additionally, the species you select will determine planting method. Rulon says large-seeded legumes, like cowpea and Austrian pea, should be drilled.

5. Seeding rate.Adjust seeding rate to match the germination rate of your chosen method. Surface-seeded cover crops typically have lower germination rates, so bump up seeding rate.

You can dial back your population if drilling cover crops, because the germination rate will be higher. Ultimately, Rulon says match seeding rate to your goals and planting methods.

“You don’t want to have so many plants in the row that they just are competing and grow a lot of top growth,” Rulon adds. “You’re looking to grow roots. That’s the important thing with a cover crop, so give them enough room to do that.”

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