Winter Cover Crops: Everything You Need To Know

November 9, 2021
GO Seed
Posted in:
Filed in:
winter cover crops

When winter winds bring a chill to the air, you grab your winter coat for protection from the elements. That’s just the start of the benefits a good cover crop can provide your soil. How do you choose the right one? Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about winter cover crops.

Winterizing Your Soil: The Benefits of Cover Crops

Whether you’re a gardener with a backyard vegetable patch or a farmer responsible for the management of thousands of acres, cover crops can provide the same amazing benefits for the soil that you rely on to produce a quality crop.

winter cover crops provide insulation and protection

Much like a winter coat offers a welcome layer of insulation from cold weather, a cover crop shelters soil that might otherwise be bare until the next growing season. 

In doing so, it prevents erosion. It also breaks up heavy soil and helps to manage moisture. If chosen with care, cover crops can correct or improve the soil’s nutrient profile. 

They can even help manage weeds and pests, draw in beneficial insects and animals, and provide grazing or forage for livestock or wildlife.

Cover crops attract beneficial insects and animals

How can you claim these advantages for your own soil? Learn to use cover crops. 

It can take a little practice and exploration to find the best practice for your specific situation, so The Oregonian suggests that you limit your initial experiments to one section or one field. 

Ideally, it should be an area that you will plant in late spring or summer. This gives you some time to figure out how to handle the cover crop residues.

What should you do once you’ve mastered using a winter cover crop? Keep experimenting. 

You might try another winter cover crop, a mixture of cover crops, or interseeding. There are plenty of possibilities.

When to Plant Winter Cover Crops 

when to plant winter cover crops

Winter cover crops may be in the fields during the winter, but few are actually planted during that season. 

As Modern Farmer explains, the general rule of thumb is to plant after harvesting and no later than one month before the first frost in your region.

Some people choose to sow seeds for cover crops immediately after they harvest so that weeds never get a chance to gain a foothold. This means that some winter cover crops are planted in August. The majority are typically planted in September and October.

How late can you plant cover crops? Can you plant them in the winter? 

As AgFuse indicates, the answer is a firm maybe. 

Ultimately, the deadline for planting winter cover crops depends on your location, your goal, and your comfort with risk. 

If you’re in the northern U.S., the answer is probably no. Waiting until winter is probably too late. If you’re located in an area where warmer weather lingers for longer, then you have a better chance of finding a window when it will still be warm enough for seed to germinate and produce enough growth to be worth the investment. 

Wherever you’re located, it’s important to consider your goal. If you simply want to shield the soil, a late start might not be crippling. On the other hand, generating enough biomass for animal feed after a late start might be impossible.

Deciding Which Winter Cover Crops to Plant

choosing a winter cover crop

What can you plant for winter ground cover? If you’re asking this question, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities. You may find that focusing on broad categories is a good place to start. Oregon State University offers some insights:

Grasses

  • Grasses generally do a great job of establishing themselves quickly. As a result, they excel at keeping weeds at bay.
  • They’re also good at bettering soil tilth, which means that they improve the physical condition of the soil and its readiness for supporting successful plant growth.
  • However, grasses don’t add much in the way of nitrogen to the soil, so there won’t be anything extra for next spring’s crop.

Brassicas

  • When too much nitrogen is the problem, brassicas may offer a solution. Some species can take up between 30 and 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
  • Their rooting capabilities also eliminate any worries about soil compaction and improve water drainage.
  • Like grasses, they produce a lot of biomass in a short period, so they’re an excellent form of green manure.
  • What should you watch out for? Some brassicas have a high seed dormancy. If you aren’t careful, you may find stragglers in your fields at inopportune times. 

Legumes

  • When adding nitrogen to your soil is important, legumes will do the work. These hardy cover crops will supply plant-available nitrogen as they decompose.
  • If allowed to flower, they can also attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.
  • Where might legumes fall short? These plants do not provide quite as much biomass as some other popular cover crop choices, the exception being our bio-massive Fixation Balansa Clover.
  • Are you a cover crop novice? Clovers, a type of legume, are often suggested as a good choice for cover crop beginners because they’re affordable and easy to grow and manage.

As you’re deciding what winter cover crop to plant, consider your goals and answer these questions (copy/paste into a document)

What do you want to accomplish by planting a cover crop?

Think about your preferences and your plans for next spring. 

  • Can you accomplish this with just one cover crop? 
  • Would a mix of winter cover crops be a better solution for your needs? 
  • Will you terminate the cover crop?
  • How will you terminate the cover crop come spring or will it winterkill?
  • What will happen with the crop residues?

Taking the time to form a clear plan that includes what you hope to accomplish, how you’ll do it, and what you’re going to do next will make it easier to weigh your options. 

Then, you’ll be ready to select the winter cover crop that’s the best fit for your needs.

Are you interested in exploring how you can use cover crops throughout the year to optimize the condition of your fields? 

Be sure to check out our Ultimate List of Cover Crops By Season for all the details. 

Are you searching for the perfect cover crop seed? You’ll find Go Seed’s offerings here.