Could a cover crop be better for your arable business than a spring crop in 2020?

As I sit here and write this at the beginning of January 2020, the last few months have been extremely challenging on farms across the country.  Winter rainfall totals are well up on typical levels and the land is struggling to cope in many areas. At a recent farmer meeting in the Midlands, of the 30+ farmers in the room there was not a single hectare of Winter Wheat planted and those that had OSR in the ground were very worried about that too.

So, if we look forward to the end of February or early March and ground conditions are still not ideal for drilling, what should your considerations be?

  • What crops could I grow?
  • Are you feeding it to your own stock?
  • Do you need the straw for your own use?
  • What are the likely variable costs of that crop?
    • Do you have seed – Is there any available?
  • What are realistic yield-range expectations (top and bottom)?
  • What are the market commentators saying about demand and prices for this crop?
  • When is this crop likely to be harvested?
    • Will this impact on timeliness / success of the following crop?

These discussions and decisions are very difficult, but we know several farmers that are already planning to fallow fields or parts of fields where they know growing a crop will be equivalent to pouring money down the drain. However, this fallow will not be left bare as these same farmers understand that living roots and active soil biology can help repair these damaged soils.  

There is no rush to get these Active Fallow crops into the ground, so we can use the longer days of late spring and early summer to dry and warm the ground. It may well be that some form of cultivation is the correct thing to choose, especially seeing the state of some fields post-harvest of potatoes and other root crops. It is vital that this activity is effective and doesn’t increase issues such as compaction in the wet soils.

Advantages of an Active Fallow

  1. Wide window of opportunity – 8-12 weeks of cover crop growth can deliver real benefits
  2. Low cost – Potential high return by getting the next crop into ideal conditions
  3. Weed control pre and post planting, plus competition from a well grown cover crop
  4. Opportunity to retain, recover and grow nutrients – Reduce the input costs for following crop
  5. Timely entry into next crop
  6. Feeding soil biology, beneficial insects and pollinators
  7. Rooting to depths that cultivations cannot reach
  8. Potential to reduce impacts of similar weather episodes in the future

So what plants are best for planting in late spring / early summer? If you think about the types of mixtures that are used in Countryside Stewardship, you will quickly realise that there is a very wide range of possibilities. Certainly bear in mind what your rotation is likely to be for the next year or two, but I would try to get a couple of legumes into the mix.  If you have any Peas or Beans on the farm then these would be perfect, but also consider any of the annual legumes, such as Berseem or Crimson Clover which can grow quite rapidly in warm soils. Vetch can be another good choice and there are a number of different types to choose from, so take advice on what would be best for your circumstances.

Buckwheat, phacelia and linseed are other great performers that can bring recognised benefits for your soil, without any notable issues.  Buckwheat is one of the fastest growing species and it can help to make more phosphate available to your next crop.  Linseed roots penetrate the soil well and we always find worms love mixes with linseed in them.  Phacelia does a terrific job in the top few centimetres of the soil as its fibrous roots create a fine tilth, but it can also send roots down to great depths.  Given that the soils are likely to have been waterlogged and possibly compacted, radish would be another species to consider. Oakbank had some great results with Smart Radish in 2019, particularly where the crop was for grazing, but Daikon types can be very good at nutrient retention and pan-busting too.

There will be a temptation to use something very cheap just to try and extract water from the soil, but this may be a missed opportunity and not what your soil needs.  Scientists have shown that straight Mustard can be quite detrimental to soil biology, so be sure to add some other species into your mix (something like Vetch would be a good choice here).  There are a large number of sunlight hours available to power some transformatory growth so use it to good effect.  Don’t choose the cheapest option, choose something that will produce a valuable resource that you can benefit from in the autumn.  Make sure that it allows a timely entry into your next crop, giving you the best chance of excellent establishment and high yields.

Finding out more

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