Cover crop strategies for northern Michigan farms

Farmers with shorter growing seasons and limited crop rotation choices can still benefit from including cover crops in their planning. Here’s what some Upper Peninsula farmers are thinking.

Buckwheat. All photos by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension
Buckwheat. All photos by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension

The growing awareness of benefits associated with using cover crops extends to the northern parts of Michigan. Many soils farmed in the northern Lower and Upper Peninsula areas are of naturally lower fertility and poor drainage (either very fine or very coarse-textured). Use of cover crops could provide nitrogen, add organic matter, break up soil compaction, recycle soil nutrients, suppress weeds and enhance performance of other crops in the rotation. The challenge amounts to fitting these desirable components into a logical and productive rotation in a more challenging environment.

Some of the challenges in the north include:

  • Short planting windows for fall cover crop seedings.
  • Long rotations of hayfields and pastures.
  • Distance from seed suppliers.
  • Unfamiliarity with some cover crop species.
  • Scarcity of equipment or services needed to get cover crop seed applied.

Some of the opportunities in the north include:

  • Utilizing cover crops with dual purpose as livestock forage.
  • Low land costs may make full season cover crop options more feasible economically where available land is plentiful.
  • Extending time for renovating hay and pasture fields by dedicating a year or two to improving soils with annual cover crops that improve soils and provide forage before re-establishing a new stand of perennial forage.
  • Utilizing cover crops that overwinter to take advantage of spring growth (rye, wheat, triticale, annual ryegrass, etc.).

A few Upper Peninsula farmers are excited about the potential for cover crops in their systems.

  • The positive impact of an oilseed radish seeding on the following year’s corn crop has a dairy farmer thinking about organizing neighbors and trying to get seed flown onto corn fields in his area next August.
  • A beef and sheep producer is impressed with the yield and quality of test strips of cover crop/forage species on his farm and is thinking about planting more.
  • A beef cow/calf producer took extra time to grow buckwheat between breaking up an old hayfield and establishing a new one. He was convinced that the difference in quality between the treated field and one next to it that didn’t get the buckwheat is due to the cover crop, and that it was well worth the extra time and money.
  • A farmer has seen, and tried, the multi-species cover crop mixtures planted for soil improvement and grazing at the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, Michigan. He has started using it himself.

Multi-species cover crop before (left) and after grazing (right).

There is no substitute for experience when checking out a new technology like cover crops. If not your own experience, then a neighbor’s, or a good on-farm demonstration. Reading up in the farm press and seeking out educational programs is also a good idea. Soil health, including cover crops, will be emphasized at Michigan State University Extension’s 2015 Agriculture for Tomorrow Conference planned for March 10 at Bay College in Escanaba, Michigan. Registration will open in January 2015.

Check out these MSU Extension articles about using cover crops

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