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Ohio State University Extension


Sunflower as a Cover Crop in Ohio

Agriculture and Natural Resources
Sarah Noggle; Educator; Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences; Ohio State University Extension, Paulding County
Rachel Cochran; Extension Associate, Water Quality; Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Paulding County

Information gathered from the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) was used to compile this summary on how to use sunflowers as a cover crop in Ohio. For more information, see the Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide, Third Edition, and the Cover Crop Selector Tool found at: view of a field filled with large, round flowers with bright yellow petals and large, brown, circular centers.


  • Rough, hairy stems
  • Alternate leaves that are egg-shaped to triangular
  • Leaves with a smooth or toothed edge
  • Yellow, pleated flower petals and a brown-black central disk

Cultural Traits

  • Summer annual
  • Minimum germination temperature: 65 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Reliable establishment window (state average): May 20–Sept. 6
  • Upright growth habit: 2–10 feet
  • Preferred soil pH: 6.0–7.5
Table 1. Rating the traits of cover crop sunflower.
Heat tolerance Excellent
Drought tolerance Excellent
Flood tolerance Good
Low fertility tolerance Good
Winter survival Winter-killed


  • Drilled at 1–1½ inches
    • In a mix: 2–4 lb./acre (pure live seed)
  • Broadcast with shallow incorporation
    • In a mix: 3–5 lb./acre (pure live seed)
  • Broadcast without incorporation is not recommended

Additional planting information:

  • 7,500 seeds per lb.
  • Increase seeding rate when planting on slopes.
  • Sunflower is best when used in a mix.
  • This is a species that adds biodiversity and is good for beneficial insects.

Disclaimer: Rules for Financial Assistance Program Recipients
Individuals participating in financial assistance programs are required to follow Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Appendix A regarding seeding rates and dates. Failure to do so will jeopardize payments. Appendix A can be found in Ohio’s Field Office Technical Guide, Section 4, Ecological Sciences Tools:


  • Dry matter = 1,000–5,000 lb. per acre, per year
    • Biomass quantity is highly dependent on planting/termination dates and precipitation.

Additional performance information:

  • Sunflower has consistent performance from year to year.
  • Its vertical structure and very edible forage with seed production is well suited for grazing and wildlife.
  • The taproot of sunflower reaches deep to improve soil structure.
  • It is a minor host for root lesion nematode that attack corn and wheat (Pratylenchus. neglectus).
Table 2. Rating the attributes of cover crop sunflower.
Nitrogen scavenger Very good
Soil builder Good
Erosion fighter Good
Quick growth Very good
Lasting residue Very good
Grain seed harvest Very good


  • Tillage
    • If terminating with only tillage, multiple passes are often required.
  • Chemical
  • Winterkill

Additional termination information:

  • Follow NRCS guidelines for cover crop termination dates to comply with crop insurance.
Table 3. Potential advantages of cover crop sunflower.
Soil Impacts
Subsoiler Excellent
Chokes weeds Good
Attracts beneficials Excellent

Potential Disadvantages

Delayed emergence: occasionally a minor problem

Increased weed potential: occasionally a minor problem

Increased insects/nematodes: could be a minor problem

Establishment challenges: occasionally a minor problem

Mature incorporation challenges: occasionally a minor problem


This publication was adapted with consent from the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) with content from the Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide, Third Edition, and Cover Crop Selector Tool ( It was created under a joint project with MCCC to produce customized introductory guidance about cover crops for all member states/provinces. Ohio cover crop recipes can be found at

The Midwest Cover Crops Council ( aims to facilitate widespread adoption of cover crops throughout the Midwest by providing educational/outreach resources and programs, conducting new research, and communicating about cover crops to the public.

Funding for this project was provided by the McKnight Foundation.

Red rectangle with white lettering spelling McKnight Foundation.



Originally posted Apr 10, 2023.