Sunflower as a Cover Crop: It’s All About the Root

Agronomists and producers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of protecting soil from wind and water erosion. Cover crops have become more important in farming systems and can boost soil fertility and reduce soil erosion.

Emily Paul, Sales and Product Development Director at Pulse USA, has a broad back- ground in the agriculture industry including agronomy sales, crop consulting, production contracting and seed sales. She says planting a cover crop revolves around several factors and goals, and when it comes to using sunflowers in a cover crop mixture those reasons for incorporation are as unique as the next cover crop seed. However, the main benefit of using sunflower in cover crop mixes involves its roots. The deep root of sunflower is beneficial to sequester residual nitrogen.

“Sunflowers in cover crop mixtures are primarily used for soil health benefits such as cycling and scavenging nutrients, reducing soil erosion and alleviating soil compaction,” explains Paul. “Their deep tap root pulls nutrients and water up from soil layers that most other cover crop species cannot reach adding diversity and synergy to a mixture.”

Paul, who grew up on a family farm near Rugby, N.D., and dedicates her time to the pulse and cover crop industry, says sunflower as a cover crop benefits livestock and wildlife as well.

“Sunflowers are great to incorporate into mixes for livestock and wildlife benefiting both the land, the environment and the animal,” she says. “The height of sunflowers is attractive for food plot mixes to provide more shelter to deer, upland and other game birds. Their flowers are especially attractive for promoting sustainability in our ecosystem for bees, pollinators and other beneficial insects.”

Saving the Soil

“Sunflowers are a great crop for soil conservation and much of that success can be accredited to their root structure and deep tap root,” says Paul. “Their root structure holds soil together, alleviates soil compaction and biologically breaks through soil layers reducing the need for conventional tillage practices.”

According to Paul, the sunflower tap root resembles an elevator bringing nutrients, microbes and water from deeper soil layers closer to the soil surface for subsequent crops to have better access to. “Sunflowers improve overall field conditions and farmers notice how well they can remedy their soils by softening and breaking the ground up for improved planting conditions,” says Paul.

Wait, there’s more. Sunflowers also have good salt tolerance. “Fields with salinity issues that hinder crop production can be remedied through the use of sunflowers allowing farmers to conserve the land they have to grow on,” Paul explains. Sunflowers are a warm season broadleaf, so Paul says it is best to use them in mixes planted once soil temperatures have reached 55-60°F.