Early sowing key to cover crop success

As farmers begin to harvest winter barley across the country, now is the time to think about cover crops.

Sowing crops early can result in better crops and more biomass.

When it comes to cover crops the old saying “a day in July is a week in August and a month in September” is always important to remember.

As soon as straw has been removed from fields farmers should get moving on cover crops. Some will plant with the drill, but nothing high-tech is needed. A light till and a pass of seed with the fertiliser spreader and the roller will still achieve a cover.

Farmers with winter barley may even plant a cover between winter crops in their rotation. Soil will benefit from a cover crop sown in the coming weeks and left in place until planting in October.

What to sow?

There are loads of options available to growers. When deciding on a crop you should consider your soil. Do you simply want a cover to take up nutrients and protect the soil or do you want the crop to improve the soil’s structure?

Plants with a tap root like stubble turnip, tillage radish or forage rape can be better than any subsoiler and break through compaction issues.

Other small and fine-rooted plants like phacelia can also help to improve soil texture and make the ground more friable and crumbly.

Planting a cover crop of mixed species can help to improve the diversity of wildlife and soil micro-organisms. Some farmers will plant large cover crop mixes, but once you’re not planting for a specific scheme there are no rules so plant what you are comfortable with.

Oats are a simple and effective option when planting a cover crop. Keeping some grain from your oat crop and planting it as a cover also keeps costs down.

If you have oilseed rape in your rotation it’s advisable to stay away from brassica crops, as volunteers may prove hard to control down the line and can reduce yields of oilseed rape crops.


If you are in the Green, Low Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) you must follow the rules. At least two species must be planted in a mix and certain seed quantities need to be followed that are dependent on the different species used.

Fodder requirements

A cover crop can also play a role in the fodder budget. If you or someone you know is low in fodder for the coming season a fodder crop can be a good option to fill the deficit.

Forage rape, stubble turnip and hybrid brassica crops can provide large amounts of biomass when planted early. Farmers should target these crops at lighter animals when grazing over winter to avoid poaching.

However, if you are planting for GLAS remember that these crops cannot be grazed until December 1.