Cover crops grow in popularity

OWATONNA, Minn. — The Albert Lea Seed House is ramping up cover crop seed production in response to growing consumer demand, said Matt Leavitt.

OWATONNA, Minn. — The Albert Lea Seed House is ramping up cover crop seed production in response to growing consumer demand, said Matt Leavitt.

Leavitt is an organic agronomist with the seed house. He joined Carmen Fernholz, a Lac qui Parle County organic farmer, and Ed Dahle, a Waseca County organic farmer, on a cover crop panel at the ninth annual Southern Minnesota Organic Crops Day held last month in Owatonna.

Interest has exploded in cover crops, Leavitt said, with 400 percent sales growth in winter rye over the last three years. The University of Minnesota is doing cover crop research and conventional farmers are showing interest.

Last year's prevented plant acres pushed many conventional growers to plant cover crops to meet insurance requirements, but for organic farmers cover crops are nothing new.

Fernholz has been experimenting with cover crops since the early 1980s. He tried hairy vetch when no one thought it would survive a Minnesota winter. It did, coming through really well in the spring.


He has moved away from hairy vetch because it has a fair amount of hard seeds. If a farmer grows wheat and has vetch seeds in it, the wheat can get rejected.

Dahle started planting cover crops in 2011. That year, he put a bulk spreader on a digger to plant tillage radish. Every seed grew.

"We had radishes everywhere," said Dahle, who farms with Mark Querna.

They also did a couple strips of winter rye, which stayed green until Thanksgiving.

In 2012, they tried tillage radish and hairy vetch. The vetch didn't grow and the radish didn't get too big as it was a dry fall. The hairy vetch came back in the spring with a vengeance.

In 2013, they planted mixes of winter rye, vetch and tillage radish.

Fernholz, likewise, went with a cocktail mix of cover crops this year. He planted a mixture of shallow and tap roots. The cocktail mix of cover crops will generate different soil microbes, Fernholz said. The loss of plant diversification has contributed to a loss of soil microbes.

Cover crop mixtures seem to be the future, Leavitt agreed. Whatever the choice, having a green cover atop the soil is preferred to bare soil. The cover crop mixture can be selected based upon a farmer's crop rotation.


The easier option is to pick a pre-mixed cover crop mix, but experienced cover croppers may want to create their own.

University of Minnesota Extension educator Jill Sackett said in Burleigh County, N.D., farmers tend to plant cover crop mixtures of seven to 12 species at one pound to three pounds per acre of each. Most of the plants winterkill. They use the cover crops for grazing.

The No. 1 way to add value from cover crops is by grazing, Leavitt said.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program has a goal of having 20 million acres of cover crops planted in the United States by 2020. Today, there are 3 million to 4 million acres planted nationwide.

Leavitt said there has not been a shortage of the most popular cover crops.

What To Read Next
Get Local