The professional development process of updating the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) cover crop decision tool had a multi-level target audience. First, we focused on each of eight state’s cover crop experts for team building while developing the decision tool. A cover crop resource training for educators targeted Extension educators and NRCS field staff. At the conclusion of the project a cover crop decision tool and resources were made available to the public for free.
Project outcomes included development of state core cover crop teams, consensus of state recommendations, uniform cover crop messaging for each state, and increased knowledge of cover crop practices for educators and crop advisors. These learning outcomes contributed to more confident and successful cover crop recommendations and more acres successfully cover cropped. Additional cover crop acres result in better water quality, enhanced soil health, and carbon sequestered.
Project activities included organizing state-wide teams of cover crop professionals to create or update the MCCC cover crop decision tool for their respective state. This team met to discuss information and experiences for the decision tool during one in-person meeting and a series of four to five video conferences.
Multi-state, multi-institution webinars were held to introduce the new tool and cover crop recommendations primarily to Extension educators and NRCS staff. These served to train ag professionals on the use of the tool, as well as publicize the new layout and features of the tool. The tool itself is designed to be a learning tool, encouraging users to change inputs and learn from the immediate outputs.
The goal of the MCCC is to increase continuous living cover across the North Central Region. We firmly believe that cover crop resources and education are needed to achieve this goal. Our philosophy is to help farmers and all types of crop advisors to reach a high level of success for cover crop management. Only when farmers are comfortable with a cover crop system will the number of cover cropped acres grow. Our goal is to reduce the occurrence of cover crop disappointments and unreasonable expectations in order to encourage successful adoption.
The objectives of this professional development project are in support of the wider MCCC organization objectives. This project served as a capacity-building project for cover crop teams in each of 8 states, as well as providing training to the broader ag advisor community, and a free resource available to the public. The first objective of this project was to assemble and strengthen a core team of cover crop experts across the state. These teams worked to revise cover crop recommendations and experiences, which in turn built consensus between partners. This consistent messaging across the state will help to provide farmers more successful and uniform information. The confidence that farmers find in consistent messaging will encourage broader adoption of cover crops.
The second professional development objective of this project was to use the updated decision tool which was built from each state’s consensus recommendations to inform a more general group of ag advisors. Webinars were held to detailing the updates to the cover crop decision tool and the state specific resources referenced within it. These webinars were open to the public, but were specifically targeted to Extension Educators and NCRS staff. The goal of this was to inform outreach professionals who may not have a specialty in cover crops, so that they will be aware of available resources that are customized to their state and growing conditions. Improving the awareness of available resources will help to improve consistent messaging around cover crop and make farmers and advisors more comfortable using and recommending them.
The result of this professional development project is leading to better cover crop choices for specific situations through strong state recommendations and a consistent cover crop message across agencies. Successful cover crop adoption will lead to increased cover crop acres. The successful adoption of cover crops across the North Central Region will translate into improved environmental and farm resiliency. Cover crop adoption is known to provide several key environmental benefits. Cover crops reduce nutrient loss by preventing erosion and sedimentation in waterways. Cover crops also reduce nutrient loss by capturing nitrogen and phosphorus that may otherwise be lost without a growing crop. Cover crops can be an important tool in manure management. They utilize soluble nutrients and hold them in a stable form until a cash crop is grown and can utilize them. Legume cover crops can add nitrogen to the nutrient cycle and may supplement nitrogen inputs.
Cover crop use can aide in establishing a sustainable water supply by improving soil infiltration and percolation through the soil profile. Cover crops are known to sequester carbon by building soil organic matter. Spread over all Midwestern crop production acres, this has the potential to be a considerable carbon sink. Improved infiltration and water holding capacity will lessen the effects of drought, excessive rainfall, and high temperatures on crops in a more variable climate. Cover crops are essential in improving soil health across the Midwest. Research has shown living roots provide immense benefit in improving the biological and physical properties of the soil. A diverse crop rotation including multiple cover crop species provides the habitat for soil microbes and larger organisms that are critical in building soil health.
There were two educational approaches each with a different target audience for this project. A considerable investment for capacity building in eight states constitutes the majority of this project. Building a team of cover crop experts in each state will enrich the quality of cover crop education for educators and farmers alike. The process of discussing personal cover crop experiences and specialized information will help each state’s team of experts reach consensus for the cover crop recommendations across the state the team-building achieved during this series of one in-person meeting and four or five video conferences will spark cover crop networking at the highest level. Experts from University, Extension, NRCS, seed companies, other agriculture industry, and experienced farmers will be invited to attend these discussions. Inviting a diverse group of experts to these discussions will facilitate inter-agency cooperation and buy-in from multiple partners. The cooperation and consensus between the experts in these agencies will trickle down to encourage collaboration in the field and a consistent message to farmers.
The information generated by the core cover crop team will be used in the MCCC decision tool and to train educators in multiple agencies. There are several learning outcomes that will be accomplished through the development of the MCCC cover crop decision tool. Among these is knowledge of species specific seeding windows by county for each state in the North Central Region, knowledge of cover crop species attributes for specific resource concerns (e.g., erosion control, nitrogen scavenging, etc.), knowledge of proper seeding rates, and awareness of cautions to using certain species. Our project will focus on providing this information to conservation professionals, but it will be made available to the public online.
The result of this knowledge will lead to better cover crop choices for specific situations through strong state recommendations and a consistent cover crop message across agencies. Successful cover crop adoption will lead to increased cover crop acres. The successful adoption of cover crops across the North Central Region will translate into improved environmental and farm resiliency.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Key objectives included strengthening relationships among cover crop stakeholders (farmers, Extension educators, University researchers, University specialists, NRCS, SWCD, seedsmen, and crop advisers) and building consensus cover crop recommendations for each state in the project. The final objective of this initiative was to add or update cover crop recommendations from each state involved into the Midwest Cover Crops Council cover crop decision tool.
The MCCC program manager worked with each MCCC State Representative to identify key stakeholders for a discussion about cover crop recommendations for each state. We targeted experienced cover crop farmers to participate as well as experienced Extension educators, University researchers, University specialists, NRCS, SWCD, seedsmen, and crop advisers. The first discussion was a day long in-person meeting. It was important that stakeholders know each other and build rapport to be more effective formulating recommendations. Follow-up discussion was be done by video conference in meetings lasting approximately three hours each. It generally took four to five video conferences to work through all cover crop recommendations, depending on the number of species recommended and the enthusiasm of the team. The group worked to reach a consensus on which species to include in the tool, seeding dates, seeding rates, attributes, and cautions for each species in the tool. By sharing experiences to come to an agreement, they developed stronger recommendations. This led to a more consistent cover crop message across the state. By including a broad range of individuals from Extension to seed industry, there was greater buy-in and more uniform cover crop recommendations between agencies.
Cover crop professionals were asked to cite research-based publications or on-farm field studies to support information provided by the decision tool. These publications are available through the MCCC website and linked in species information sheets where appropriate. Information sheets for each cover crop specie were customized for each state. These information sheets contain planting, termination, cultural traits, advantages, and disadvantages for each specie based on discussions during core cover crop professional meetings. The MCCC website is a place for cover crop resources to be found across the North Central Region. There are also links to additional resources such as SARE, NRCS, Extension, and many other partners. These simple educational products for Extension and other conservation professionals aide in providing detailed county and state recommendations to farmers.
State teams from South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa have completed the process of reaching consensus recommendations for the decision tool. These recommendations are ready to be loaded into the Midwest Cover Crops Council cover crop decision tool. Michigan decision tool discussions are in progress.
One result of these discussions was the realization that the seeding timeframes originally developed for the decision tool are not responsive enough to accommodate the needs of some states. In order to partner with the NRCS and have the MCCC dates accurately reflect cost share requirements, additional flexibility had to be programmed into the decision tool. This need was only realized by in depth discussions with a diverse group of partners. Because the MCCC wanted to be responsive to the needs of our partners, we are taking additional time to program more flexibility in the seeding dates for cover crops.
Participants in this process have gained knowledge from colleagues and peers from across their respective state and various production practices. The process of evaluating each cover crop specie for various benefits and disadvantages has increased the knowledge and awareness of cover crop professionals in these states.
Once the Michigan team completes their work and the computer programmers have finished the updates to the tool, we will proceed with cover crop professional development.
The key objective of this initiative is to take the new cover crop decision tool for each state and train Extension educators, NRCS staff, and other ag professionals on the newly developed decision tool and additional MCCC resources.
After the tool has been updated, MCCC will partner with state departments of agriculture, NRCS, SWCDs, Extension, agribusinesses, and farmer organizations to coordinate multifaceted outreach efforts. This outreach will include conservation professional training for Extension educators, NRCS staff and others as applicable. These professional development webinars will be open to all Extension educators and NRCS staff from each respective state, with a goal of reaching a minimum of 10 Extension educators and 5 NRCS professionals. Due to the difficulty with our computer programming and the additional functionality being programmed into the tool, we will offer multi-state, multi-institution training webinars. This training will provide in depth discussion on MCCC tools that are available for use. Through this project, accurate recommendations from confident conservation professionals will give farmers the assurance and tools necessary to successfully use cover crops on more acres. Cover crops are documented to improve water and environmental quality while building soil health and sequestering carbon. Program evaluation will be conducted with the core cover crop team as well as educators that attend the training at the conclusion of decision tool updates.
We have made preliminary plans for multi-state, multi-institution webinars to present the updated tool and train ag professionals on using this resource. Additional MCCC resources and state specific cover crop materials will be featured as a way to supplement the information in the decision tool. These webinar trainings cannot be held until the computer programming is complete and the updated decision tool is available for use. There will be a minimum of two webinars, and a minimum of one webinar will be recorded for additional use.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We have held meetings to create the North Dakota and South Dakota decision tools and also to update the Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa decision tools. All of the information is ready to be uploaded into the online cover crop decision tool. The process of coming to consensus on cover crop recommendations for each of these states has been beneficial to the participants. Each team has learned from each other and broadened their understanding of cover crops species, purposes, and concerns. This team building and the process of reaching consensus has helped to unify different organizations and improve cover crop recommendations across each of these states. Even though the updated tool is not live yet, the improved recommendations are already in use by those who participated in the conference calls.
One unexpected challenge we have faced is the limited availability of our computer programmer to complete the programming required for this project. We have not been able to upload the cover crop recommendations into the MCCC cover crop decision tool because of this limitation.
We have addressed this challenge by hiring two Michigan State University graduate students to program the updates to the tool. This has extended the length of the project, but has also provided some benefits. In addition to updating the six states and adding North and South Dakota, the MCCC will also be able to refresh the user interface of the online tool. The revised tool will be ADA compliant and mobile friendly. This will greatly expand the capability of the decision tool to be used by additional audiences and even in the field. MCCC has had requests to make the tool mobile-friendly and because of this project we have been able to make that a reality. The tool will also have more flexibility in seeding dates for cover crops. This is allowing us to work more closely with partners such as the NRCS because we are able to more accurately reflect the seeding dates that they use in their policies.
The second phase of our project where we train additional Extension and NRCS staff with the decision tool and other MCCC resources cannot go forward until decision tool programming has been completed.