Enhancing Soil Health with Cover Crops in North Dakota: Training Program

Final report for ENC15-142

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2015: $71,012.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Grant Recipient: North Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Marisol Berti
North Dakota State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

Research in cover crops management practices and soil health benefits has been going on for at least the last five years in North Dakota.  Research plots and a few on-farm research trials initiatives have generated interesting information but cover crop adoption is been very slow.  It is our goal to bring to county agents and farmers the knowledge acquired by NDSU researchers. Our proposal has the two main components of a successful educational project: 1) Good and complete local information collected in the field through replicated trials and on-farm experiences and out of state workshops and conferences, and 2) farmers in the Red River Valley (RRV) eager to learn about cover crops management and benefits. Adopting cover crops in the RRV is not easy because most of the area is planted to corn and soybean in no-till and both crops are harvested too late in the season to plant a cover crop.  Our target audience will be farmers mainly from SE North Dakota but not limited to that area.  We propose to train county extension agents and farmers about management and benefits of cover crops. We seek an increase in adoption and the integration of cover crops into existing cropping systems to increase resiliency. As a result of this project, at least 10 county agents and 70 farmers in North Dakota will learn about cover crops and soil health in several activities. Incorporating cover crops in their practices will have a tremendous impact in soil health and other ecosystem services.

 

Project Objectives:

The main goal of this project was to bring to county agents and farmers the knowledge in cover crops acquired by NDSU researchers. The objectives and performance targets have been met.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Abbey Wick

Education

Educational approach:

 Educational approach consisted of  Train-the-Trainer workshops and field days and tours. Evaluation of learning was conducted using surveys.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Cover Crops Selection and Soil Health-Train-the Trainer Workshops (3)
Objective:

The point of train the trainer events is that those attending the training will then take what they’ve learned to train others.

Description:

  The three workshops included:

Workshops and handouts have been taught by professional’s experts in cover crops, Jay Fuhrer, Hal Weis, Guiping Wang, Lee Briese, Dave Franzen, Heike Bucking, Abbey Wick, and Marisol Berti.

 Contents of the workshops included:

-Identification of cover crops in pots, 35 cover crops were grown in pots and attendees were taught how to identify the plants and seeds. A pre-test to assess baseline knowledge was administered, then followed by a post test of ID. Most participants improved they knowledge in 50%. Also group activities to select cover crops mix according to cover crops functions and seed price were done.

– Topics covered in the workshops by experts were:  Cover crops grazing, soil health improvement, soil salinity control with cover crops, soybean cyst nematode reduction with cover crops,  cover crops N and P uptake, nutrient cycling,  soil erosion reduction,  residual herbicides injury to cover crops and how to avoid it.

Outcomes and impacts:

We were very successful in this area, according to survey respondents, 81% of whom rated the workshops very or extremely useful. Key findings from the survey include:

  • 97% of respondents used what they learned to create cover crop activities in their part of the state
  • 91% shared what they learned with their colleagues
  • 89% shared what they learned with farmers
Cover crops field days and tours (22)
Objective:

To show growers and extension agents how different crops grow and the importance of planting date.

Description:

 We had 22 field days in cover crops.

 Field days included:

 1) Cover crops demonstrations trials planted in two seeding dates, late July and second week of August. (31 different cover crops, warm- and cool-seasons)

 2) Interseeding of cover crops into standing corn and soybean

 3) Interseeding corn and alfalfa

4)  Use of cover crops for moisture control

5) Cover crops for grazing

6) Planting soybean on green cereal rye

7) Interseeding equipment, Hagie,  Twin-row interseeder

8) Using aerial seeding

9) Soil health

10) Use of cover crops for nutrient management

11) Grow cover crops for seed production

12) Use cover crops for soil erosion control

 

 

Outcomes and impacts:

The survey listed key practices that we covered during field days and asked respondents which ones they have implemented as a result of attending the events.

The greatest change in behavior among respondents was establishing a cover crop after harvest of a cash crop (50%) and using cover crops for soil erosion control (51%). The greatest potential for adoption of new practices include establishing a cover crop in a standing cash crop (51%) and interseeding at the time of side-dressing in corn (50%). Fifty percent or more of the respondents have either adopted or are considering adopting all but two of the practices listed – growing cover crops for seed production (39%), and interseeding in tall corn or soybean with Hagie type equipment (34%).

Two field days (15 August, Rutland, ND, and 26 September Fargo, ND) were subjected to short surveys right after the event. In summary, based on surveys conducted after the field day in Rutland, 73% of the respondents indicated that learned something useful. Additionally, 57% of the growers indicated that they would probably try interseeding a cover crop into corn and 79% in soybeans and 27% expressed interest in intercropping alfalfa in corn. Based on a survey of participants of the Fargo field day, 78% indicated that they learned something useful and 37% and 82% indicated that they would likely try intercropping cover crops into corn and soybean, respectively.

Educational & Outreach Activities

100 Consultations
5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
25 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

45 Extension
6 NRCS
6 Researchers
15 Nonprofit
4 Agency
63 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
244 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

500 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
250 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:

Impacts

a)       Increased knowledge by farmers about cover crop management and soil health: Although we do not have metrics yet, we are positive that our interaction with farmers in Café talks, field days, workshops, and presentations has increased the knowledge of farmers about cover crops and soil health.

b)        Increased awareness and knowledge on how to select cover crops to improve productivity, profitability, and soil health in professionals trained at the workshops

Impacts / Contributions outcomes

Train the Trainer impacts – the domino effect
The point of train the trainer events is that those attending the training will then take what they’ve learned to train others. We were very successful in this area, according to survey respondents, 81% of whom rated the workshops very or extremely useful. Key findings from the survey include:

  • 97% of respondents used what they learned to create cover crop activities in their part of the state
  • 91% shared what they learned with their colleagues
  • 89% shared what they learned with farmers

Farmer impacts and outcomes – changes in attitudes and behavior
This project is having a great impact in advancing the knowledge and adoption of cover crops in corn-soybean systems in the northern Great Plains. The graph below demonstrates the impact among survey respondents in terms of changes in their practices and potential future changes (attitudes), as a direct result of having attended one or more cover crop events between 2015 and 2017. The survey listed key practices that we covered during field days and winter workshops and asked respondents which ones they have implemented as a result of attending the events. The darker bars on the left side denote the percentage of respondents who have adopted the practices, and the lighter bars on the right are those who are considering adopting the practices. The chart lists the practices in order of highest impact to the sum of combined and potential changes. Other categories of responses not shown include “I am not considering this” or “I was already doing this prior to 2015.”

The greatest change in behavior among respondents was establishing a cover crop after harvest of a cash crop (50%) and using cover crops for soil erosion control (51%). The greatest potential for adoption of new practices include establishing a cover crop in a standing cash crop (51%) and interseeding at the time of side-dressing in corn (50%). Fifty percent or more of the respondents have either adopted or are considering adopting all but two of the practices listed – growing cover crops for seed production (39%), and interseeding in tall corn or soybean with Hagie type equipment (34%).

The above data supports key impacts of the project. We continue to analyze and summarize participant survey data, and will submit the additional results to NCSARE as soon as they are available.Figure-1

Accomplishments and Milestones

This project included many activities (field days, workshops, field tours) listed below.  The goals set for this project were met. The project reached well over 500 farmers to field days and about 20 county agents, seed sales reps, NRCS and educators.  Several FactSheets and cover crop booklets were developed and are available at www.ndsu.edu/soilhealth.

 

Field days

Over the life of the project, we held 22 field days and winter workshops in 15 different North Dakota locations. Just over 500 participants attended these events, including 244 farmers, 45 Extension personnel, 63 industry representatives (seed, chemical, equipment companies),  10 USDA-NRCS/ARS, and 15 commodity group representatives. In addition to general soil health, the most common topics covered at these events included establishing a cover crop in a standing cash crop (interseeding), cover crops in rotation, multi-species cover crop mixes, and establishing cover crops after harvest of cash crop. Other key topics included using cover crops to attract pollinators, using them to manage problematic areas (e.g., salinity), establishing cover crops for grazing, using them to transition to conservation tillage, establishing them for weed management, growing them for seed production, using cover crops to reduce soybean cyst nematodes, interseeding and broadcasting equipment, and aerial seeding of cover crops.

 

Workshops and professional training

During the project, we held three separate Train the Trainer workshops for cover crops; two in Fargo, ND, and one in Langdon, ND. We exceeded our goal of reaching at least 10 county extension agents by 9 (for a total of 19). These agents accounted for about one-third of the workshop participants. Other university research and extension personnel accounted for nearly another third, and the rest included industry representatives, crop consultants, and various state and federal agencies. Attendees who completed cover crop “tests” before and after training averaged a 16% gain in scores from 64% pre-workshop to 80% post workshop in 2016. Tests scores from the 2017 workshop are incomplete, though the scores that we do have average 81% in the post test.

 

In addition to cover crop identification, topics covered by the experts included: cover crops grazing, soil health improvement, soil salinity control with cover crops, soybean cyst nematode reduction with cover crops, cover crops N and P uptake, nutrient cycling, soil erosion reduction, importance of mycorrhizae, and residual herbicides injury to cover crops and how to avoid it.

 

Bulletins and extension publications, materials, factsheets 

During the project, we produced nine publications, including:

  1. North Dakota State University. 2018.  Grazing Cover Crops Booklet. NDSU extension. January 2018. Compiled by A. Wick, and M. Berti. Grazing-Booklet-final
  2. Berti, M.T., 2017. Alfalfa-corn intercropping may increase forage and improve soil health. North Dakota Research Report. Forage Focus, December 2017, p. 17.
  3. North Dakota State University. 2017. Building Soil Health . Booklet. NDSU extension. 15 August 2015. Compiled by A. Wick and  M.T. Berti.
  4. North Dakota State University. Incorporating Cover Crops. 2017. Booklet. NDSU Extension. 15 August 2015. Compiled by A. Wick and M.  Berti. Incorporating-cover-crops-booklet
  5. Kandel, H., K. Johnson, and M.T. Berti. 2017. Winter camelina. Factsheet. NDSU Extension. Available at http://www.cropsyscap.org/links-of-interest/winter-camelina-fact-sheet
  6. Berti, M.T. Alfalfa Corn-Intercropping- Preliminary Research Results. FactSheet. NDSU extension. Alfalfa-corn-intercropping-hand-out
  7.  Berti, M.T. and A. Wick. 2017. Selecting cover crops Factsheet. Selecting-a-cover-crop-FactSheet
  8.  Berti, M.T. and A. Wick. 2017. Cover crops seeds and plants ID, material used in Workshops.Cover-Crops-plant-and-seeds-pictures-training-brochure

Grants received

  • North Dakota Soybean Council/SBARE, 7/1/2018-6/30/2019 .Preceding and Interseeding Trap Crops into Standing Soybean to Reduce Soybean Cyst Nematode Population
  • North Dakota Soybean Council/SBARE, 04/2016-04-2017. Broadcast Seeding of Cover Crops into Standing Soybean to Improve Soil Health. 
123 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
244 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:
  1. Cover crops for grazing workshop. 22 January 2017, Havana, ND (77 participants) 
  2. Farm tour, Brekers farm, interseeding cover crops on-farm experiments. 20 October 2017. Havana, ND. (20 participants)
  3. Cover crops field day. North Dakota State University Experimental Station, 26 September 2017. Fargo, ND. (82 participants) 
  4. Cover crops interseeding field day. NDSU Extension. 15 August 2017. Rutland, ND. (88 participants) 
  5. Field day. Using Cover crops and grazing tools. NDSU Extension. 25 July 2017, Gardner, ND. (58 participants) 
  6. Field day North Dakota State University and Univ. of Minnesota Extension, 28 June 2017, West Central Research and Outreach Center, Morris, MN. (190 participants)
  7. Cover crops field tour and workshop, 2 October 2015, Fargo ND (51 participants) 
  8. Cover crop field day, Toussaint’s Farm, 27 October, 2015, Wahpeton, ND. (40 people) 
  9. Cover crop Tour, Soil Conservation District, Forman and
  10. Rutland, ND Sargent County. 9 October, 2015 (100 people).
  11. Soil health and cover crops field day at the SHARE-NDSU farm in Rutland and Delamere, ND. 27 September 2016 (135 people)
  12. Field day, cover crop interseeding demonstration, Gardner, ND,  7 July 2016 (42 participants).
  13. Cover crop interseeding into sunflower, 18 July 2016, Dwight, ND (15 participants)
  14. Field demonstrations , visiting farms with cover crops Milnor (15 people),
  15. Delamere (22 people), and
  16. Forman (20 people)
  17. Cover crop field day 18 August 2016 Dickinson, ND (18 participants). Demo plots were planted in July.
  18. Field day cover crop tour Highlights Grazing and Soil Health Benefits, 19 August 2016 Streeter, ND, (13 participants)
  19. Cover crop field day 4 October, 2016 Fargo, ND, (72 participants)
  20. Cover crop field day at Conservation Cropping Systems Project farm 7 October 2016, Forman, ND,  (50 participants)
  21. Using Cover Crops in Rotation – Tour of Wagner and Wilson Farms 27 October 2016 (100 participants)
  22. Cover Crops and Soil Health – Tour for NDSCS Students 25 October 2016 (100 participants)
Success stories:

 A North Dakota farmer who has been practicing no-till and cover crops for the last 20 years, claims he can get a corn crop with only 50 lbs/acre of nitrogen.  We have seen it. His soil is so healthy that nutrients just cycle back every season to feed his corn.

An interesting anecdote at one of our cover crop field days.   The farm where the field day was going to be held got 4 inches of rain 2 days before the field day, so we thought we would be in really muddy soil.  To our surprise,  the field was completely drained and easy to walk in, not muddy at all. This field had cover crops interseeded between the rows of sunflowers which increase water movement in the soil. A neighboring field, in conventional tillage and no cover crops, planted to soybeans still had  1-2 inches of standing water.

Recommendations:

The impact of  this Professional Development Program was huge.  This type of program can really make a big difference in the adoption of a new crop or technology , in this case, cover crops and soil health.   The fast adoption of cover crops we are observing in North Dakota wouldn’t have happened without NC-SARE support.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.