NCCC211: Cover Crops to Improve Agricultural Sustainability and Environmental Quality in the Upper Midwest
(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)
NCCC211: Cover Crops to Improve Agricultural Sustainability and Environmental Quality in the Upper Midwest
Duration: 10/01/2020 to 09/30/2025
Statement of Issues and Justification
This project will support the continued development and evaluation of cover cropping systems in the Midwest, with the primary goals of improved agronomic production, soil health, and water quality within annual cropping systems. The setting in 2020 is vastly different than when this multistate project first began in 2010. The surge in cover crop adoption within the last decade (CTIC, 2017), has generated a large demand for cover crop information and education, numerous articles about cover crops and soil health in agricultural magazines, and heavy emphasis on cover crops and soil health by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Most states in the North Central region are now doing at least some research and Extension work related to cover crops, and it is important that researchers and educators in these states are knowledgeable about approaches and results from other states and coordinate activities where possible. Members of NCCC-211, in cooperation with the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC), have met at annual conferences to share information about research and outreach work being done in each state, to plan coordinated research projects (several projects involving two to four states have been funded as a result of coordination started at these meetings), to develop and facilitate regional Extension products (MCCC decision tool, pocket guide, recipes, etc.), and to interact with stakeholders about cover crop research and outreach needs for the coming years. The NCCC-211 includes members with both research and Extension responsibilities, ensuring rapid transfer of knowledge across the continuum of applied research and outreach. Stakeholders for the work of NCCC-211 include farmers, crop advisors, NRCS and other conservation agencies, NGOs involved with soil and water conservation, and university research and Extension personnel. Many of these stakeholders attend the annual MCCC meeting (which is where NCCC-211 also meets) and actively participate in development of priorities and some of the outreach products.
The overarching rationale for growing cover crops is to have a living, growing plant for more months of the year relative to conventional annual corn and soybean cropping systems in the Midwest, as well as in other cropping systems, especially in the western member states in this committee. Most research in cover crops has been conducted in corn-soybean systems, however adoption of cover crops in other cropping systems (wheat, sorghum, sunflower, sugarbeet, canola, dry bean) is lagging behind and is urgently needed. Cover crops have been shown to reduce nitrate leaching (Kaspar et al. 2008) and are a key practice in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies of most Midwest states. Widespread adoption of cover crops across the Midwest could greatly reduce nitrate losses to the Mississippi River basin (Kladivko et al., 2014). Cover crops can reduce erosion (Kaspar et al., 2001), reduce runoff (Basche, 2017), increase soil organic matter (Moore et al., 2014), improve soil health (Blanco-Canqui et al., 2012), and increase other ecosystem services. While the benefits and potential benefits of cover crops are clear, there are still many practical questions and challenges for farmers that hold back more widespread adoption. One of the challenges is to have practical, specific guidance for integrating cover crops into a typical crop rotation in an area, and NCCC-211 members are working with MCCC to provide Extension materials for this purpose, including the newest product of cover crop “recipes” (http://mccc.msu.edu/getting-started/cover-crop-recipes/). Other challenges require more research and development, including N tie-up and nutrient release timing of cover crops, adaptive nitrogen fertilizer management, and causes and solutions for the yield drag sometimes seen with corn following rye. The practical challenges of timely seeding and termination, surface water quality, selection of specific cover crops and mixes for specific purposes, such as grazing of cover crops, and both short- and long-term economics are areas that need more research. A recent SARE publication about economics (Myers et al., 2019) is a useful contribution to this discussion, but more work is needed to help document some of the economic benefits of soil health improvement and partially substituting cover crops for other production inputs.
Evaluate the impacts of cover crops on agronomic production and profitability, and develop adaptive management practices to improve the performance of cropping systems that include cover crops.
Quantify the impacts of cover crop integration into cropping systems on water quality, soil health, and other ecosystem services.
Develop new and update existing cover crop educational and outreach products and programs for a variety of audiences, and work with partners (farmers, conservation agencies, ag industry, crop advisors, non-governmental organizations) to facilitate more rapid adoption and successful management of cover crops across the Midwest.
Procedures and Activities
1. Evaluate the impacts of cover crops on agronomic production and profitability, and develop adaptive management practices to improve the performance of cropping systems that include cover crops.
Members of NCCC-211 are conducting field research and modeling studies on the performance of cover cropping practices and systems in their respective states. Studies include growth and nutrient uptake of various cover crops, nutrient cycling in cover crop systems and adaptive N management to optimize subsequent growth of the cash crop, cover crop impacts on weeds and other pests, causes and solutions to the yield drag sometimes associated with corn following a cereal rye cover crop, cover crops for grazing or harvested forage, and economics of cover cropping systems. It is critically important for researchers from different states to meet regularly to exchange information about approaches and findings of the studies and to coordinate experiments where possible. These meetings and discussions are also important as a way to interact with stakeholders about new questions and challenges that need to be addressed. Several NCCC-211 members have successfully developed new multiple-state research projects as a result of the communications and sharing at the annual meetings. The renewal of NCCC-211 will continue to foster these types of communications and subsequently improved research impacts.
2. Quantify the impacts of cover crop integration into cropping systems on water quality, soil health, and other ecosystem services.
Research and modeling studies are being conducted in many of the North Central states, on the effectiveness of cover crops in improving water quality. Studies include the effects of various cover crops on nitrate leaching, soil erosion, soil health, and water and nutrient runoff. Modelling studies are extending the inferences from field studies to look at different weather and climate conditions, different soils, and different cropping systems. It is especially important for researchers from different states to share and discuss research results and the reasons for similarities and differences in results. This communication and exchange of ideas also leads to modifications of cover crop management or treatments and coordination of common measurements that might be added to individual studies.
3. Develop new and update existing cover crop educational and outreach products and programs for a variety of audiences, and work with partners (farmers, conservation agencies, ag-industry, crop advisors, non-governmental organizations) to facilitate more rapid adoption and successful management of cover crops across the Midwest.
Members of NCCC-211, along with other colleagues in MCCC, work with many partners and stakeholders in developing and delivering outreach products and programs about cover crops. The annual meeting is the main venue for in-person communication about ongoing programs, their impacts and challenges, and the needs for further education. Plans are made for new collaborative projects and volunteers are sought to become engaged with those projects. Programs and products resulting from NCCC-211 in concert with MCCC include the annual conference, field days with speakers from multiple states, an updated cover crop decision tool, the new regional cover crop “recipes” that are tailored for each state, and collaboration on professional development workshops. The annual meeting is critical for building and maintaining the communication and collaboration across the Midwest. In addition, the MCCC is collaborating with the newly-formed cover crop councils in other regions of the US.
Expected Outcomes and Impacts
- Producers, NRCS personnel, Extension staff, ag-industry, and crop consultants will have a better understanding of ways to successfully integrate cover crops into different cropping systems for purposes of agronomic production and profitability, soil health, and water quality improvement.
- New cover crop management strategies will be developed to increase the potential benefits of cover cropping systems in the Midwest.
- Cover crop use will increase in the Midwest.
- The increased cover crop use in the Midwest will lead to water quality benefits, improved soil health, and increased sustainability of agriculture.
Projected ParticipationView Appendix E: Participation
Extension products such as factsheets, videos, decision tools, and training modules developed or coordinated by the committee will be available through Extension websites of the respective states as well as on the MCCC website. Training programs as well as single-topic presentations will be available at winter meetings, field days, as webinars, or as on-line modules. Audiences include producers, NRCS staff, Extension staff, crop consultants, and ag-industry.
A modified Standard Governance for multistate research activities will be followed. A new Secretary will be elected each year, and after the annual report is submitted, the Secretary rotates up to Chair for the next year.
Basche, A. 2017. Turning soils into sponges: How farmers can fight floods and droughts. Union of Concerned Scientists.
Blanco-Canqui, H., M.M. Claassen, and D.R. Presley. 2012. Summer cover crops fix nitrogen, increase crop yield, and improve soil-crop relationships. Agron. J. 104:137-147.
Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC). 2013-2017. Annual reports of the National Cover Crop Survey. Joint publication of CTIC and SARE.
Kaspar, T.C., E.J. Kladivko, J.W. Singer, S. Morse, and D.R. Mutch. 2008. Potential and limitations of cover crops, living mulches, and perennials to reduce nutrient losses to water sources from agricultural fields in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. pp. 129-148 in Final Report: Gulf Hypoxia and Local Water Quality Concerns Workshop, Sept. 26-28, 2005, Ames, Iowa. ASABE, St. Joseph, MI.
Kaspar, T.C., J.K. Radke, and J.M. Laflen. 2001. Small grain cover crops and wheel traffic effects on infiltration, runoff, and erosion. J. Soil Water Conserv. 56:160-164.
Kladivko, E.J., T.C. Kaspar, D.B. Jaynes, R.W. Malone, J. Singer, X.K. Morin, and T. Searchinger. 2014. Cover crops in the upper midwestern United States: Potential adoption and reduction of nitrate leaching in the Mississippi River Basin. J. Soil Water Cons. 69:279-291.
Moore, E.B., M.H. Wiedenhoeft, T.C. Kaspar, and C.A. Cambardella. 2014. Rye cover crop effects on soil quantity in no-till corn silage-soybean cropping systems. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 78:968-976.
Myers, R., A. Weber, and S. Tellatin. 2019. Cover crop economics. SARE Technical Bulletin.