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Cover Crops: Seeding Rates and Planting Depths for Cool-Season Species

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Publication Number: P3425
View as PDF: P3425.pdf
Field of red flowers with a sign that reads, "Wheat (25) + Crimson (15)

Cover crops are regaining the popularity they held in past years as a result of multiple factors, such as their ability to improve water quality and soil health, recycle nutrients from below the rooting zone, add organic matter and nitrogen into the soil, and reduce soil erosion.

To optimize benefits and positive returns on the investment, producers should manage several factors under their control:

  1. Plant high quality seed.
  2. Use the correct rhizobium inoculant on legumes.
  3. Decide on conventional or no-till system.
  4. Decide on broadcast or drill seeding method.

Always plant high quality seed. The seed label should indicate a recent test date and high germination percent, high pure seed percent, and few weed seeds. Poor seed quality will result in uneven stands, stunted growth, and limited benefits. Legumes require rhizobium bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen gas (N2) into the ammonia form (NH3) that plants can use. Some legume seeds are pretreated with adequate inoculant, while others have no inoculant. Inoculants are species-specific, so be sure to purchase the correct strain.

Cover crops must be planted at the correct seeding rates and depths for proper growth. Planting at a seeding rate that is too high increases seed costs and wastes money. Competition between individual plants will stunt growth and lead to poor performance. Seeding rates that are too low allow weeds to escape and compete with the cover crop for water, nutrients, and sunlight.

Improper planting depth is a common error. Planting too deeply may lead to seedlings dying before they emerge because they depleted their energy reserves before reaching sunlight. Weakened plants that do emerge will be stunted for the entire season and reduce the benefits. Shallow planting may lead to seedling death from desiccation if roots run out of moisture before becoming established. Shallow-rooted plants often remain stunted throughout the entire growing season and fail to achieve desired goals. A general rule is the smaller the seed, the shallower the planting depth.

You should consider the effects of any planting method, whether for cash or cover crop. The most common decisions are whether to plant into a conventional tillage or no-till seedbed and whether to broadcast or drill seed. Conventional tillage uses a prepared seedbed to increase the likelihood of successful establishment but increases land preparation, implement needs, and labor costs. No-till offers a wider planting window but requires an expensive drill. Weed control failures are more common in no-till systems, and seeding rates are increased slightly to compensate for weed competition.

Broadcast seeding uses a whirlwind-type seeder and is commonly used in conventional tillage because it allows seed to be covered with soil or pressed into the soil. Proper calibration is difficult. Increase seeding rates to compensate for poor seed-to-soil contact and poor uniformity of seed distribution. Broadcasting is not recommended when planting mixtures of species that require different planting depths. In this situation, drill seeding is preferred because it allows precise equipment calibration, allows proper seed depth and spacing, requires a lower seeding rate, and offers the highest probability of success.

Conventional tillage and no-till drills are often available for rent from local Natural Resource Conservation Service offices. For more information on cover crops or for help with calibration, contact your local MSU Extension office.

Large field of yellow flowers.

Table 1. Planting guide for common cool-season cover crop species in Mississippi.

Seeding Rate (lb/acre)

Grasses

Single1

Blend2

Cereal rye

60–90

25–40

Oat

70–110

30–50

Black oat

50–70

20–40

Barley

50–90

30–50

Wheat

60–100

25–50

Legumes4

Single

Blend

Crimson clover

20–30 PLS

12–16 PLS

Persian clover

3–6 PLS

3–5 PLS

Subclover

10–20 PLS

8 PLS

Hairy vetch

25–30

20–25

Austrian winter pea

60–90

30–40

Broadleaf

Single

Blend

Oilseed and tillage radish

8–12

3–6

Brassica (rape, turnip, kale)

8–14

3–6

 Seeding Depth

Grasses

Inches

Cereal rye

¾–2

Oat

½–1 ½

Black oat

¾–1 ½

Barley

¾–1 ½

Wheat

½–1 ½

Legumes4

Inches

Crimson clover

¼–½

Persian clover

¼–½

Subclover

¼–½

Hairy vetch

½–1 ½

Austrian winter pea

1–3

Broadleaf

Inches

Oilseed and tillage radish

¼–½

Brassica (rape, turnip, kale)

¼–¾

Main Benefits3

Grasses

EC

WS

C

OM

NPK

N

NS

DS

M

Cereal rye

*

*

*

*

*

     

*

Oat

*

*

*

*

*

     

*

Black oat

*

*

 

*

*

 

*

 

*

Barley

*

*

 

*

*

   

*

*

Wheat

*

*

*

*

*

     

*

Legumes4

EC

WS

C

OM

NPK

N

NS

DS

M

Crimson clover

 

*

     

*

   

*

Persian clover

         

*

   

*

Subclover

*

       

*

   

*

Hairy vetch

*

*

     

*

   

*

Austrian winter pea

         

*

   

*

Broadleaf

EC

WS

C

OM

NPK

N

NS

DS

M

Oilseed and tillage radish

*

 

*

 

*

 

*

*

*

Brassica (rape, turnip, kale)

*

 

*

 

*

 

*

*

*

1 Broadcast rates; use lower rate in conventional tillage and higher rate in no-tillage system. Rates can be reduced by 20 to 30 percent when using a seed drill. Source: Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Online: https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition/Text-Version.

2 Reduced rates for mixed-species plantings.

3 EC = erosion control; WS = weed suppression; C = reduce compaction; OM = build organic matter; NPK = capture nutrients; N = nitrogen fixation; NS = nematode suppression; DS = disease suppression; M = microbe activity.

4 Legume rates are for PLS (pure live seed). Legume seed pretreated with fungicide or inoculant will be approximately 50% seed and 50% treatment.


Publication 3425 (500-03-20)

By Bill Burdine, PhD, Extension Specialist, Agronomic Crops.

Copyright 2020 by Mississippi State University. All rights reserved. This publication may be copied and distributed without alteration for nonprofit educational purposes provided that credit is given to the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Produced by Agricultural Communications.

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Extension Service of Mississippi State University, cooperating with U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published in furtherance of Acts of Congress, May 8 and June 30, 1914. GARY B. JACKSON, Director.

This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number rd309-137/s001396 through the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under subaward number 20163864025382.

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Authors

Portrait of Dr. Bill Burdine, Jr.
Extension Specialist I
Agronomic Crops

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