S1085: Cover Crops for Sustainable Southern Agroecosystems

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active


The issues that need attention through cover crop research in the Southern region identified below emerged from a lengthy process of consultation with farmers, technical advisors, and other agricultural professionals over a period of two years. The overall strategy for this lengthy process was to refine the understanding of needs and priorities throughout the process, starting with those identified through the region-wide survey and using each successive wave of data collection to further specify needs and sharpen objectives. The process started with input from potential stakeholders throughout the region: (1) the Southern Region Assessment of Research Priorities and (2) the identification of needs on the part of participants in the Southern Cover Crops Conference Evaluation. (3) An in-depth assessment of Cover Crop Research Needs and Priorities in Florida supplemented the regional to improve understanding of needs in the southern sub-tropical coastal plain sub-region. (4) A team consisting of members of the Southern Cover Crops Council with responsibility for developing this proposal conducted an Expert Elicitation of research needs among representatives on the Council.

Southern Region Assessment of Research Priorities. A team consisting at least one representative from each Southern region state and territory conducted a region-wide assessment of research priorities as part of a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SSARE) planning grant. The planning grant process ultimately resulted in a regional conference and the formation of a Southern Cover Crop Council. The SSARE Administrative Council asked that SARE representatives of all states in the region participate. SSARE did not dictate the methods of data collection and the approaches used ranged from formal survey-type approaches to less formal approaches like solicitation of information from key informants. Fifty-six individuals from eleven states and two territories responded. They provided a list of 188 topics, which the study team categorized by topic and sub-topic. Two broad topics emerged as the most frequently mentioned, cover crop mixtures and nutrient cycling (22 and 23 comments from individuals in 8 and 9 states/territories, respectively). Other frequently mentioned priorities were benefits of using cover crops, the economics of using cover crops, establishment, management, disease suppression, grazing, water use and weed suppression. Each of these topics included several sub-topics. Two clear conclusions emerged from this study. First, the multiplicity of responses reflects the diversity of farming systems, climatic zones, soil type, and scale of production in the Southern Region. Second, many of the needs interact and overlap in complex ways, which often differ by production system. As the report from this study points out, there will be a wide range of specific research needs requiring attention in the Southern Region, despite consistent support for cover crop research by Southern SARE.

Southern Cover Crops Conference Evaluation. Participants in the planning grant from Florida and Kentucky conducted a systematic evaluation of all sessions and field demonstrations at the Southern Cover Crops Conference (SCCC). This conference was a primary outcome of the planning grant and drew participants from throughout the region. Participants included farmers, technical advisors from the public and private sector, researchers, and other stakeholders active in sustainable agriculture initiatives in the region. In addition to evaluating participant learning and assessment of each activity, the evaluation team distributed a survey to all participants. The evaluation included identification of research priorities and of barriers to cover crop adoption by growers. The identification process involved two steps. First, participants selected three top priorities for research from a list of broadly defined potential choices, such as beneficials and pest control or soil biology. The broad areas were based on the results of other surveys about cover crops and were reviewed to a group of experienced cover crop users for additions, deletions and rewording. Table 1 provides the results of this initial selection process. After selecting three priority research areas, the respondent provided a specific research topic for each of the three priority areas s/he selected. Participants did not select these responses from a pre-determined list, but rather stated them in their own words, resulting in very specific research needs. Examples are “weed control in perennial crops”, “benefits of grass, legume, forb mixtures, if any”, and “more data with different crops and inter-relationships of grazing cover crops in those systems”. Respondents also indicated they saw as the biggest barrier that each of the three research priorities poses to grower adoption of cover crops. This response serves as an indicator of the likely impacts that will result from addressing each research area identified. Example provided are “new varieties farmers aren’t familiar with”, “length of time to receive benefits”, and “cover crops for weed control – a barrier I foresee in this area are residual effects that may linger”.

Table 1. Priorities for Cover Crop Research as Identified by Participants in the Southern Region Cover Crops Conference


Overall, the priorities for research identified in the Southern Cover Crop Conference Evaluation reflect the results of the regional survey described previously. Nutrient and fertility management and varieties and mixtures of cover crops were very high priorities for conference attendees. Establishment, termination and management of residues also emerged, similar to the cover crop management priority in the regional survey. The identification of specific research topics by conference participants demonstrates very clearly the complex relationships between not only broad areas of research, but also at the more specific level elicited in the evaluation. For example, relatively few participants selected soil moisture management as a top research priority, but examination of the specific research topics shows that soil moisture is a component in many other research priorities. Several respondents, for example, provided research topics about the relationships between soil moisture management and nutrient management, termination practices, and soil biology. The identification of barriers reflected the overall need for site- and system-specific research. Many of the statements concerning barriers reflected essentially respondents’ concern of the risks associated with uncertain outcomes from cover crop use – ranging from unknown biological impacts to little confidence in the economic benefits of cover crop use in general and/or of specific practices associated with cover crops. These findings reinforce the need for a combination of component, disciplinary research with broader multi-disciplinary research that provides growers with enhanced tools for determining which of the specific practices and tools emerge in component research are apt to be of most benefit to him/her. Finally, these findings also demonstrate a need to prioritize the overall emergent research needs at the sub-regional level. The identification of barriers to cover crop adoption provides clear indications that cover crop adoption in the Southern Region is likely to expand slowly without extensive sub-region and cropping system level research that addresses overall regional research needs.

Cover Crop Research Needs and Priorities in Florida. Faculty members at the University of Florida conducted a statewide survey of stakeholders in Florida to gain further insights into the use of cover crops, barriers to expanding use, and principal research needs. The purpose of this study was to deepen understanding of the barriers, opportunities, and needs of producers in the sub-tropical coastal plain sub-region of the South where cropping systems, climate, and soils differ from those of the other sub-regions. It provided an opportunity to examine the degree to which sub-regional research priorities coincide with the broader findings from the Southern Region Assessment of Research Priorities and the Southern Cover Crop Conference Evaluation. The respondents in this study were not farmers, but rather agency (mostly NRCS) or university researchers or extension specialists with extensive experience with cover crops. Respondents completed a questionnaire that included some components of the SCCC Evaluation. However, we asked respondents whether they work with farmers who do not use cover crops. Four of thirteen expert respondents had no experience with non-users. All had experience with cover crop users. Those with experience with non-users were asked to identify barriers to adoption among non-users. Three key barriers emerged: (1) timing establishment and termination of cover crops, (2) lack of confidence about the long-term benefits of cover crops, and (3) relatively ineffective alternative to chemical pest control. Two of the challenges to farmers who do use cover crops were the same: timing establishment and termination and little confidence in long-term benefits. However, the expert respondents identified two other major challenges for users. One was the annual cost of planting and managing cover crops and the other was the need for varieties specific to Florida growing conditions. Among fourteen specific research topics identified in the SCCC Evaluation, nine emerged as high or moderate priorities for these experts, based on frequency of selecting these options in a list of specific topics for research. The differences in barriers to non-users and challenges to users are noteworthy because they show that research is needed not only to increase cover crop adoption, but also to address serious challenges faced by those who have already adopted cover crops. For example, for users the cost of managing cover crops is a major challenge and, given the increased international competition to US growers, is likely to be a major factor in the future, particularly for producers of high value horticultural crops with very high associated economic risk and declining profitability for US producers.

Expert Elicitation. The Southern Cover Crop Council established a strategy team with responsibility for identifying the research priorities to address through region-wide research and establish the goals and objectives for the research proposed here. The team conducted a systematic elicitation of critical objectives from 23 members of the Southern Cover Crop Council who participated via e-mail or teleconference in this process. Based on the information described above, these individuals provided four sets of critical research objectives. They identified critical objectives for row crops (10 objectives), specialty crops (5 objectives), (3) winter cover crops (14 objectives), summer cover crops (5 objectives), and grazing (6) objectives. Among experts in row crop systems, research objectives focused on three primary themes: nutrient management, pest management, and the effects of cover crops on soil moisture. For specialty crops, key considerations were the effects of cover crops on soil and water quality, including erosion control, soil moisture management, and pest management. Among objectives for winter cover crops, cover crop management (varieties, timing, residue management, effects on cash crops), effects of cover crops on soil health and quality including moisture retention, and once more, better information regarding the long-term economic and biophysical benefits of cover crop use. Objectives were similar for summer cover crops, but typically more specific to a particular crop or cropping system. Grazing management strategies, including rotational grazing using annuals and mixed species, emerged as specific priorities.

The team responsible for the development of this proposal also compared and contrasted the findings from the four procedures described previously with the findings reported in the 2015-2016 Annual Report of the nationwide Cover Crop Survey completed by SARE, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). Not surprising, the results of the national survey differed in many details based in part on the relatively poor participation among the states in the southern region. The report classifies states by number of respondents to the survey (0-7, 8-21, 22-57, 58-104 and 105-357). All states except Missouri (58-104 respondents) reported fewer than 58 responses. Nonetheless, the national data do reinforce some of the conclusions reached through the preliminary research that informs this proposal. For example, respondents reported effects on soil as major benefits of cover crops. However, only relatively few respondents were said that they received benefits in terms of reduced nutrient application. Only 34% said that cover crops increased profitability, a major concern in the Southern Region, while 35% said they do not have enough data or information to know, 6% said that cover crops decrease profitability, and 26% said that cover crops do not affect profitability. This finding suggests documenting the benefits of cover crop use is a persistent barrier and challenge and should be a high priority to address through both biological and economic research in the Southern Region. Significant barriers identified in the national study included seeding the right species and cover crop establishment, similar to concerns of respondents in the Southern Region, again suggesting that this is a persistent issue and one that regional research should address. A majority of growers in the national survey do use cover crop mixes, all but five percent reported that they have maintained or increased using mixes since they adopted cover crops. This suggests that developing appropriate mixtures for Southern Region systems and conditions may be an important factor in increased adoption and improved benefits from cover crops in the region.

Technical feasibility of the research. Perhaps the greatest strength of this multistate project is that it will be an initiative of the SCCC and will have guidance and oversight from a SCCC Board standing committee. Since members of the SCCC are already engaged in research on cover crops within their own states, the project will harness researcher knowledge and build upon existing cover crop expertise and experience. The SCCC also includes farmer members, cover crop seed industry members, and USDA NRCS personnel who can contribute valuable, real world perspectives that will inform the research. It is likely that equipment for planting, irrigation, data collection, and termination will vary with location and this may be considered a limitation. However, it can be an advantage due to the fact that there will also be differences in the equipment available to farmers for implementing and terminating cover crops. A multistate approach will allow involvement of scientists with a variety of complementary expertise from breeding to soil microbiology and economics that will broaden the scope of the research and increase the extent, applicability, and quality of the results.

The advantages for doing the work as a multistate effort. The mission of the Southern Cover Crops Council (SCCC) is: “To facilitate and enhance communication and collaboration among producers, extension, researchers, and other agricultural professionals, and transfer of information and technology to promote the successful adoption and integration of cover crops into southern agricultural systems”. A major goal of the SCCC is to promote natural resource conservation through the use of cover crops that increase farm profitability and environmental stewardship by increasing the knowledge and skills of farmers and ranchers. Coordinated, multistate research is regarded as a key component that will contribute to achieving this goal.

The southern region encompasses a range of climates, topography, soil types, and production systems. These differences can influence cover crop adaptability and contribute to the site-specific performance that is typical with cover crops. The establishment of a multistate project provides a mechanism and framework to build the research and outreach networks that will ensure that the coordinated research and the associated extension provide farmers and ranchers with the knowledge and technology that will lead to favorable outcomes and impacts. A multistate approach will allow the development of recommendations and decision-aids that adjust for subregional differences and peculiarities. The multistate collaborations that will be fostered will improve the likelihood of successfully obtaining research funding from grant programs that encourage a multistate approach.

Likely impacts from successfully completing the work. The research will result in increased cover crop options for the southern region and improved knowledge about how, where, and when cover crops should be used in order to optimize benefits and minimize tradeoffs. Research results will contribute to the development educational materials and databases, and the creation of new decision tools and/or modification of existing tools with direct applicability to the southern region. Related extension and outreach will involve improved SCCC platforms for communication with farmers and ranchers and enhanced peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among farmers and ranchers. The integrated networks of farmers, university researchers, USDA ARS researchers, and USDA NRCS personnel researchers fostered by the multistate project and facilitated by the SCCC will contribute an expansion in acreage on which cover crops are successfully implemented.

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