The Best Winter Crops for Your Small Farm

posted on Monday, October 14, 2019 in How To

winter crops

Despite the southern location, the climate in Tennessee and Alabama isn’t conducive to crop production year-round. The top cash crops in the region — soybeans, corn, cotton, tobacco, and peanuts — grow in warmer temperatures and are harvested before winter.

There’s one exception: soft red winter wheat. 

This winter wheat variety grows well in the region and is hardy enough to survive when temps dip to their annual lows. Soft red winter wheat is commonly used to make flours, so there’s a demand that can turn a winter rotation crop into a cash crop.

When to Plant Winter Wheat 

The planting date for winter wheat depends on the harvest date from your summer crop. But you also need to plant it early enough so the plant has enough time to develop deep roots to survive the winter and three to four inches of growth above the soil.

That’s a pretty small window. When you’re growing winter wheat for grain, you should target a date in the fall between October 15 and November 10. Fortunately, winter wheat doesn’t require a lot of prep work to plant. It grows best when the ground is firm and there’s just enough loose soil to cover the seeds. So there’s no need to plow your fields for the winter crop. You can even farm it no-till, planting it deeper with a no-till air drill.

That’s good news for farmers working soft red winter wheat into their crop rotation. But you do need to consider what crops it’s following. Winter wheat is best suited to follow the two most popular crops in the region, corn and soybeans. It can also be rotated with sorghum and other row crops.

When to Plant Winter Cover Crops

Soft red winter wheat is equally popular as a cover crop. Some farmers like the flexibility of planting it as a cover crop but keeping their options open to make some money if they have a productive season. Others like the ease of planting and the benefits it brings to the soil.

Cover crops bring plenty of benefits, especially when combined with no-till methods:

  • Improved soil health – The root systems of cover crops continually grow and die, providing a good source of organic matter that leads to a richer topsoil.
  • Water retention – The additional organic matter also improves soil aggregate, reducing compaction and leaving more space to absorb water.
  • Erosion control – Fields are empty most of the year. Cover crops provide more soil cover and prevent the loss of topsoil.
  • Excess nutrient absorption – Since you’re not trying to get a high yield out of cover crops, you don’t use fertilizers to help them grow. Instead, they act as nutrient recyclers, soaking up the extra nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from the previous crop cycle.
  • Weed suppression – Bare fields invite winter weeds. Cover crops help choke them out, reducing the need for herbicides in your spring planting.

Add it all up and you get an environment for increased production with your cash crops once the seasons change. 

3 More Cover Crops to Grow in the Winter

Winter wheat is an excellent cover crop for small corn, cotton, soybean, and peanut farms in the region. But there are several others that grow well in the climate and provide the same soil benefits.

Crimson Clover

This legume is a nutrient scavenger, bringing nutrients up from deep in the soil. It also adds nitrogen to the soil for fields that are in need of it. Crimson clover grows best in sandy soil and is most effective as a cover crop in corn and cotton fields. Seed an early-blooming variety in August or September to get your spring crops planted earlier.

Hairy Vetch

Hairy vetch is another legume that is hardy enough for winters in the northern United States. It helps increase wet aggregate stability in the soil — even more than winter wheat — which keeps the topsoil from compacting and forming a surface crust. Hairy vetch should be planted in the same early fall time period as crimson clover and works well with soybeans, corn, and cotton.

Winter Rye

Winter rye, or cereal rye, is a very versatile cover crop. It’s the hardiest of all winter grains because it covers the ground quickly and establishes deep roots. Because of this, it’s drought-tolerant and can grow in both sandy and clay soils. Winter rye can be planted as early as September or as late as the beginning of November, giving you more flexibility for your fall harvest of cotton, soybeans, and peanuts — the three crops it’s best suited for.

Research from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture shows that a combination of cover crops is the most economic and effective option. Using a seed mix of winter wheat and cereal rye, or one of those grains combined with crimson clover or hairy vetch legumes, provides more ground cover and better controls weeds.

Whether it’s a cash crop of winter wheat or just a cover crop to improve your soil before spring, growing winter crops can provide a boost for your small operation. Your new farming practices will surely require some changes to your planting and seeding equipment and seasonal schedule. Check with your local dealer about adjustments that can be made to your existing equipment or new attachments that can make you more efficient from spring all the way through winter.

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