Improving Conservation Practices and Soil Health in Sweet Potato through Cover-It-Up

Progress report for ES20-153

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $65,220.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Mississippi State University
Region: Southern
State: Mississippi
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Bill Burdine
Mississippi State University Extension
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Project Information

Abstract:

Sweet potato production requires soil have low bulk density to produce high quality roots for the fresh market. To loosen soil, Mississippi producers conduct up to 12 tillage operations per year which extends into the off-season.  Cover crops can reduce soil erosion while improving tilth, scavenge nutrients and provide nitrogen fixation. Producers often reject cover crop benefits since they are not harvested and sold. CoverItUp is a 2-year Train-the-Trainer program to educate trainees on cover crop benefits, specie selection, establishment and crop termination methods, and management tactics. Project will target Extension agents, USDA-NRCS, Experiment Station staff and Mentor Farmers. Mentor Farmers will host on-farm plots and field days. Long term goals are: 1) reduce soil erosion via cover crops, 2) education of soil health benefits by sustaining live roots  throughout the year, 3) lower fuel demand through reducing tillage, 4) establish a local network of professionals competent in cover crop management.  Specific objectives are: A) increase trainee knowledge of cover crop benefits, B) improve knowledge of specie selection, C) increase awareness of crop establishment and termination tactics, D) educate on strengths and weaknesses of specie mixtures, and E) realize cost savings through low-intensity implements.  Primary activities are: a) demonstration plots/field days, b) fact sheets and publications, c) in-service training, d) mass and social media, e) local, regional and national presentations. Anticipate 50 Extension agents, 20 NRCS staff, 2 Mentor Farmers and 35 producers will attend. Outcomes will be measured using Pre/Post evaluation instruments, authored publications and sweet potato acres protected by cover crops.

Project Objectives:

The primary target audience is Extension Agents from Mississippi State University with secondary audiences being Alcorn State University Extension agents, NRCS staff, mentor farmers and other farmers.  Mentor farmer adoption will help provide long-term success.

A multi-disciplinary team of Specialists will educate “trainers” who will disseminate information at the county level. Trainees will receive knowledge, hands-on experience, resources and technical support to help sweet potato producers’ move from hearing about cover crops to utilizing them.

Long-term goals are to:

1) Reduce soil erosion in fields left vulnerable during the winter months

2) Educate producers of soil health benefits of sustaining living root systems throughout the year

3) Develop a network of professionals competent in cover crop management

4) Lower fuel demand through reduced tillage

Project Objectives are to:

1) Increase trainee knowledge of soil health and reducing erosion via cover crops

2) Increase proficiency in species selection and placement

3) Increase knowledge of crop establishment (seeding rates, planting method) and termination methods

4) Educate trainees on strengths and weakness of various seed mixtures

5) Develop awareness of weed/pest suppression and potential for pest issues (green bridge)

6) Increase awareness of sustainability through reducing inputs (lower fuel consumption with cover crops vs tillage)

Objectives 1 – 6 will be addressed using similar tactics and programs.  We propose working with two Mentor Farmers in the sweet potato industry to showcase the value of cover crops. The PD has worked with both Mentor Farmers on other projects and they are excited to host field days showing the value cover crops offer. Both farmers have incorporated cover crops and are proponents of the practice. We plan to establish demonstration plots and host field days in spring of 2021 and 2022.

Objective 1 focuses on general knowledge of benefits and how to reduce erosion. We will provide 2 hours of classroom training followed by 2 hours in-field training at field days. This will be led by our project team and invited speaker, Dr. Beth Baker. Dr. Baker and I often present together at other field days and our presentations are complimentary. Dr. Baker will demonstrate water flow hydraulics, erosion potential and sediment losses/capture. She will show the importance of reducing erosion whereas Burdine will demonstrate erosion using a 5-pan erosion simulator.  The simulator is an excellent visual learning tool. Trainees will learn how to reduce erosion losses with cover crops and will realize the benefits of a continuous living cover on microbe activity, compaction reduction and water infiltration.

Objective 2 will address proper specie selection. Demonstrations will showcase 40 plots of specie mixtures.  Trainees will see the benefits and limitations of each mixture and its relationship to sweet potato production. Issues like rooting structure, nodule formation, biomass production, and insect infestation will be reviewed. Trainees will witness the positive and negative aspects of specie mixtures and how to select the proper species.

Objective 3 addresses establishment and termination methods.  Trainees will receive classroom training and publications before visiting demonstration plots. We will use a split-plot design with main plots being establishment method (grain drill vs broadcast) and split-plot being with and without cultipack. Attendees will learn how seeding method affects costs, plant growth and benefits received. Attendees will see crop destruct methods including herbicide desiccation, roller/crimper and disc. Trainees will learn positive and negative aspects of each planting and crop destruct method.

Objective 4 addresses strengths and weaknesses of seed mixtures. The demonstration plots will show how species interact with one another. Trainees will learn how to evaluate seed cost expenses, effects of soil type, inoculants required, differing planting depth per specie, and what benefits (reduce erosion, nutrient recycling, water infiltration, nitrogen fixation, pest/weed suppression) each species can deliver.

Objective 5 will address weed/pest suppression and pest sanctuary (green bridge). Trainees will learn how plant species can suppress weed species through light reduction and allelopathy. They will learn how allelopathy from black oat can help suppress nematodes which are a major pest in sweet potato.  Trainees will learn how cover crops must be managed properly to lessen pest issues in the cash crop (green bridge).

Objective 6 shall educate trainees and producers on reducing tillage operations via cover crops to lower fossil fuel demand. Trainees will learn how cover crops can reduce bulk soil density and weed populations allowing reduced tillage operations. Cover crops will be shown more cost-effective than tillage in reducing bulk density and weed populations.   

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Beth Baker (Educator)
  • Dr. Laura Downey (Educator)
  • Jami Earp - Producer
  • Caleb Englert - Producer

Education

Educational approach:

Field Demonstration Days are the primary source of education used. Multiple locations increase attendance by growers. Additionally, I entertain individual producer contacts, NRCS and Extension agent questions and have a state-wide in-service planned for late summer 2021 on erosion reduction using cover crops. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Cover Crop Field Days
Objective:

Introduce and/or expand knowledge of cover crops benefits and limitations in reducing erosion and improving soil health in sweet potato fields.

Description:

Two field days were held in separate counties to highlight cover crop usage. Field days were April 22, 2021 in Chickasaw county and April 27, 2021 in Monroe county.  A total of 46 attendees participated in the two events.  Field days were scheduled to last 2 hours each but lasted 3+ hours with many questions as interest was higher than expected. A diverse group of Extension agents, NRCS field staff, consultants and farmers participated.

Outcomes and impacts:

Major topics discussed were: 1) rationale for cover crops, 2) potential benefits for erosion, soil health, nutrient recycling, tilth, etc. 3) specie selection based on needs, 4) costs per acre, 5) establishment practices, 6) termination practices, 7) Green bridge insect issues, and 8) nitrogen fixation.  There was very high interest in selecting the proper grass and planting rates as well as critiquing clover species for soil type, nitrogen fixation potential and termination issues.

Multiple crop consultants attended and showed a desire to recommend covers to their clients. This probably has greater potential to convince producers to utilize covers than does Extension agents.  Mentor farmers were very positive and provided actual benefits they have witnessed on their operations following cover crops.

Educational & Outreach Activities

13 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
1 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

23 Extension
8 NRCS
1 Researchers
6 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
31 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Forty six participants attended the Field Demonstration Days. All attendees were receptive to using cover crops and approximately 15% of attending producers had used covers to some extent in the past. Discussion and question periods were robust as agents, consultants, producers and myself covered a myriad of topics. Attending producers/consultants will be surveyed in fall of 2021 to determine adoption rates.

Extension agents and NRCS field staff appreciated the reference materials I provided along with the ‘real-world’ practices they should be recommending to their clients.

2 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
37 Farmers reached through participant's programs
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.