Utilizing precision application of cover crops to minimize planting challenges while maximizing benefits to corn

Final Report for FNC15-1018

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $7,289.00
Projected End Date: 02/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Upton Farms
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Expand All

Project Information





  • Project Duration: 2 years
  • Date of Report: February 21, 2017

We grain farm in the northeast corner of Hamilton county Illinois and are 100% no-till. Our planting practices are half corn and half soybean on the tillable acres, with approximately 1200 acres in cover crop.

The farm has been 100% no-till for over 20 years. With the use of cover crops, we have been able to use less chemicals and fertilizer. The addition of filter strips, water ways, terraces, and dry dams have increased our yields and promoted better soil health.



  • By using different cover crop species, I hope to maintain good erosion control but eliminate the disadvantage of planting into thick cover crop residue.
  • My long term goal for creating this precision, multi-cover crop species seeder would be to make the planting of cover crops easier and more efficient, thereby increasing the number of farmers who would incorporate cover crops into their farming operations.


There is a growing interest in cover crops, however new challenges are encountered and time and dedication are required to find out what works best for each operation. One of the common challenges with utilizing cover crops is allowing the cover crops to develop until planting to get the fullest advantage out of biomass and root development.  But doing this can create difficulties when planting into heavy green residue.  To meet the goals of this project, I fabricated a precision seeder that allowed for a mix of different cover crop species to be planted both within the corn rows as well as between the corn rows.  By seeding cover crops species that are easier to plant into within the corn rows and different cover crops species with heavier residue in the middle of the crop rows, I was hoping to maximize advantages and minimize the challenge of planting into green, heavy residue. The most challenging cover crop species to plant into were placed in the row centers and those that either winter kill or result in a more fragile residue were planted close to or in the corn row itself, with the goal of maximizing corn stand using customary planting equipment.  The results of this system are similar to a conventional strip till operation that works well on flatter soils but is not adaptable to southern Illinois fields due to highly erodible and non-uniform slope direction, which makes contour farming impractical in most cases. 

When perfected, this system of precision planting multiple cover crops species could allow for a more flexible transition from a typically conventional tillage system into a no-till cover crop system.


Mike Plumer, Conservation Agriculture

            Mike provided advice on which cover crop species to include in the project as well as concepts to consider in the design of the precision planter.  He also participated in both the field day and study circle at my farm.

John Pike, Pike Ag LLC

            John was instrumental in setting up the research plots both years, creating the plot layout, helping to plant the plots, as well as collect stand count and yield data both years.  John also participated in the field day and study circle at my farm. 

Bronwyn Aly, University of Illinois Extension Educator, Local Food Systems & Small Farms

            Bronwyn facilitated and coordinated many aspects of the project, including plot layout and establishment both years, advertising for the 2016 Spring Cover Crop Field Day and study circle that were held at my farm, and taking photographs.

Nathan Johanning,University of Illinois Extension Educator, Local Food Systems & Small Farms

            Nathan participated in planting the research plot in year one as well as participating in both the field day and the study circle at my farm.

Adam Birkner, Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation

            Hamilton County SWC helped to sponsor the 2016 Cover Crop Field Day held on my farm.


Research results and discussion:


Starting with cover crop planting in the fall of 2015, planting conditions were good and all cover crop species utilized in the project achieved a very good stand and development prior to the killing frost that terminated some species as planned.

The winter of 2015/16 was mild and warm conditions in late February and March caused an earlier than usual spring green-up.  We needed good cover crop development in the spring to thoroughly test our system and that was the case and to the extreme.  Wet conditions in May delayed corn planting until June 5 so the cover crops achieved almost a month of added growth over what would normally be expected.

Planting operations went well with the only problems encountered being some misalignment of cover crop row placement vs. planter alignment.  This issue was a result of not having access to the U of I RTK guidance equipment as planned at the beginning of the project due to the closing of the nearby agronomy research station in April of 2016.  Nonetheless, good results were achieved and much was learned, confirming that the general idea of the project and precision planted cover crops was valid and effective.

While stands across the plots were not optimal due to the corn row not aligning with the intended planting zone in some cases, where the proper alignment was achieved, results were favorable and better than the check treatments where no cover crop was planted.  Yields shown in the table below are less than average for the area, however, with the late planting season and torrential rains in July and August (which is very unusual), our plot yields were comparable to corn yields in the surrounding area and throughout the southeastern IL region.



Row Cover

By Row

Yield Bu/ac.


































In September 2016, another cover crop plot was established.  Modifications were made to the precision planter based on problems observed the previous year.  Cover crop species were also changed slightly for this second research plot.  Planting conditions were again adequate and a good cover crop stand and development were achieved before winter termination.  This plot will again be planted this year and corn plant stand counts and yield data will be collected.


This grant was successful in demonstrating the possible benefits of precision planting of cover crops to allow the benefits of the system to be maximized while minimizing some of the associated challenges with solid seeding of blended cover crop mixes.

The project has encouraged us to continue efforts to fine-tune the system.  Another long term goal that has been identified from this project is to use this precision planting system to help determination which cover crop species works best for both corn production and soybean production.  Could this system also improve soybean yields?

In order to achieve the full benefits of this system, some type of auto steer or RTK system will be needed to allow the cover crop planting and field crop planting to be more efficient, due to the placement of the rows.  This technology is available on larger equipment on the farm but was not adaptable to the small plot equipment used, in absence of access to the U of I equipment.  In year 2, more extensive plot flagging was done to better align the planting of both cover crops and the next planted corn crop which will help greatly. 


Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

2016 Spring Cover Crop Field Day – April 1, 2016 85 in attendance

Advanced Soil Health Training Field Day for the American Farmland Trust – November 10, 2016 – 40 in attendance

Study Circle – August 19, 2016

Has spurred interest among farmers and crop advisors from across the state wanting to look for more novel applications of cover crops.

Illinois Specialty Crops Agritourism & Organics Conference -  January 13, 2017  - Mentioned in presentation to vegetable growers as a potential tool for incorporating cover crops in production system. – 40 in attendance

White County Soil & Water Conservation annual meeting – mentioned during a presentation. -100 in attendance

Plumer and Pike have utilized information from the project in their presentations at workshops and conferences across the state and Mid-west. 


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.