When you’re establishing alfalfa, hay land or conservation perennial mixes, you probably get the itch to see something green growing right away – even if that’s not the realistic life cycle for the crop you’re planting. Planting a nurse crop (sometimes called a companion crop) with your perennial mixes can give you that beautiful green look and a great start for a perennial system.
What is a nurse crop?
It’s a crop planted along with your perennial seed to help control weeds and erosion while the perennials are establishing their stand. It can also serve as a crop to hay during the first year of establishment.
What makes a good nurse crop?
Oftentimes, oats or forage barley are used as nurse crops. This is simply because they offer a good price point and are easy to add to the mix. When seeding, they also provide more bulk weight per acre, which helps you plant at the correct rate.
How much should I plant?
If you’re seeding alfalfa or perennial grasses to harvest for forage, we usually recommend seeding one bushel of oats or 30lbs of forage barley per are. If you’re planting a conservation mix and don’t need to harvest the nurse crop for forage, adding 10-15 lbs per acre of oats to the native grass or wildflower mix works great.
Are there other benefits of nurse crops?
I’m glad you asked. They help weed suppression by establishing strong growth before early-season weeds come back from the initial pre-emergent herbicide or tillage pass from before planting. I like to say nurse crops are like the bigger brother to the perennial seeds – they pave there way for the seedling to easily follow them and don’t get run down by pesky weeds that may show up later in the growing season (keep in mind, we don’t recommend spraying herbicides during the establishing year because it can slow down and weaken the stand). The added value of being able to take the nurse crop off as forage is also very important when trying to cashflow your field in the first year. By taking a hay crop of oats off those acres, you can generate revenue within the first few months of establishment and help your bottom line. Also, if you clip the nurse crop 60-75 days after planting, it will help stimulate grasses to tiller – thickening the stand.