Winter Kill

Winter hit the farm pretty suddenly this last November. Almost overnight the temperature dropped about 40 degrees and with it came a heavy snow that stayed. The problem with that was we weren’t able to harvest our little patch of sunflowers because they didn’t have enough time to dry out properly.  If they are not dried enough before harvest, we are not set up with a way to finish the drying after harvest and they will mold.

These particular sunflowers are much shorter than the traditional sunflowers you might grow along the back fence of your home garden. We’re using ours for oil trials as well as a cover crop.

A “cover crop” is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. Out here on the Montana prairie the wind can be just as detrimental as a hail storm. During the winter, cover crops help keep the snow from blowing away, which means more snow will lie on the fields and when it melts, the resulting moisture will stay in the fields.

Sunflowers are a relatively hardy plant and despite the long winter, heavy snows and hungry deer and birds, they’re still standing with most of the seeds still in place. The good news is the seeds are still plenty fine to harvest so when this plot dries off in the spring we can bring the combine in.

But did you know there are crops we actually want to get caught in the snow? Here on the farm this last fall, we planted over 600 acres of winter wheat and winter peas. These particularly tough seeds are planted early in the fall and the little plants which sprout hibernate in the ground through the winter before starting to grow again in the early spring. But the snow plays a crucial part in the success of thesefall seeded crops.

During the height of winter, the snow acts as a sort of blanket, insulating the seeds from the extreme cold we can experience here in northern Montana. It also provides protection from the persistent wind and wildlife. Then, come (no the) spring, the snow melts and provides the moisture necessary for the plants to continue grow.

This last fall we planted about 380 acres of winter wheat and 250 acres of winter peas. In previous years, our fall seeded crops have done quite well and while our winter wheat is looking particularly good this year, two of our three winter pea fields are showing extensive winter kill.


We grow winter peas for a couple of reasons. Similar to our sunflowers, they are useful as a cover crop, but we don’t actually harvest our winter peas. We use them as green manure, which means that when the crop starts to bloom, usually in early June, we till them into the soil. Like many legume plants, winter peas develop nitrogen nodules on the roots. And nitrogen is a key ingredient to enriching the soil and maintaining sustainable, organic agriculture.

It is important that winter peas will start to sprout and have a good grow prior to the first snow. The tops of the plants will normally freeze and die but the roots and stems near the surface of the ground are often strong enough to last the winter, so it’s not uncommon to see a lot of brown when the snow begins to melt. This year, however, most of our winter peas did not fare well. There are small patches along the edges of the fields that are doing well, which may be due to more consistent insulation under deeper snow drifts. But the reality is, we really don’t know what went wrong for sure.  We think that the field that survived had a more trash on it which caught more snow, protecting the peas just a little more through the winter.


Going forward, we will need to decide how we want to proceed, but for now we are grateful for our flourishing winter wheat crop and that at least one of our winter pea fields came through. Such is life on a farm.