Finding the right mix of Cover Crops in a Sweetcorn and Snap Bean operation in the Midwest

Final report for FNC18-1137

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2020
Grant Recipient: O'Rourke Family Gardens
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Mark ORourke
O'Rourke Family Gardens
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Project Information

Description of operation:

O'Rourke Family Gardens is a small produce farm located in Central Illinois that markets produce to local area Farmer's Markets as well as on-farm sales. We offer a variety of farm-fresh produce including (but not limited to) Sweetcorn, Snap Beans, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Onions, Garlic, Peppers, Cucumbers, Squash (summer and winter varieties), Sweet Potatoes, Cole Crops, Strawberries, and Asparagus. Before receiving this grant our operation used multiple tillage systems and often several repetitions per season to control weeds in areas where future plantings of Sweetcorn and Snap beans were planned. The use of smaller 2-row planting equipment and subsequent cultivation resulted in numerous trips across the planting resulting in significant compaction. We had experimented in the use of cover crops, but had not implemented them routinely into our production system.


In our fresh market vegetable farming operation our two largest crops by land area utilization are sweet corn and snap beans. These crops are first planted when field conditions are ideal in the spring and then every 1-2 weeks depending on heat unit accumulation in order to space the harvest of these crops as the market season progresses. Sweet corn and snap beans will be planted into the months of July and August respectively resulting in a harvest opportunity into early Fall. This system results in a portion of land sitting idle for up to 2 ½ months before a crop is planted. Following harvest of the first planted crops, if the timing is beyond the threshold for planting a subsequent (and rotated) crop, then it will remain fallow for the remainder of the growing season.

During these periods, a tillage pass would be necessary to control weeds and possibly again prior to planting. The goal of this research is to select appropriate cover crop varieties or blends that will provide adequate weed suppression in both the post-harvest and pre-planting windows while maintaining yield expectations when compared to conventional tillage operations.

Project Objectives:
  1. To identify cover crop varieties or blends for Fall and Spring seeding that are suitable to be followed by Sweetcorn and Snap Bean production.
  2. To evaluate weed suppression of Spring and Late-Summer Cover Crop systems
  3. Evaluate emergence of Sweetcorn and Snap Bean crops planted into cover system for each planting date.
  4. Compare and evaluate the yield results from the proposed cover crop systems to conventional tillage.
  5. Promote and share research observations and results through on-farm tours, producer field days, social media, and possibly specialty grower conferences.


Materials and methods:

A replicated strip plot design is being used to compare different cover crops that may be implemented successfully in a sweet corn/snap bean rotation. Note that more than one cover crop may be useful in this rotation. The operation plants cash crops throughout the growing season, from mid-April through July. Factors to be evaluated include: weed control/suppression prior to planting, plantability, in-season weed control, crop yield, and overall system implementation.

Research results and discussion:
Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations
2 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Farm Bureau "Ag in the Classroom" Farm tour June 5, 2019

23 Primary School Educators guided by 2 Illinois Farm Bureau leaders toured the O'Rourke Family Gardens farm where topics included the cover crop project and how it integrates into our sweetcorn and snap bean systems. It is important for educators at this level to begin the discussion with students regarding emerging systems in agriculture that are beyond "conventional" systems.

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Initial no-till planting in the Spring following fall cover crop seeding resulted in inconsistent soil conditions at time of planting. We plan to plant sweetcorn up to 13 different dates in order to be able to provide fresh, tender product throughout the market season. The first two plantings in April 2018 were conducted side-by-side on tilled ground next to no-till into the cover residue. The first planting date into the no-till resulted in a 40% reduction in stand compared to the second planting date into tilled soil. The  second planting date resulted in a 25% stand reduction compared to the second date planted into tilled soil. The first planting date planted into tilled soil resulted in a 15% stand reduction compared to the second planting date in tilled soil. Lesson learned from this component is that due to the weak seedling vigor of sweetcorn seed, soil conditions that are warmer at time of seeding result in more uniform emergence and more desirable stands. Areas planted to sweetcorn following cover crops early in the planting season when soils tend to be cooler will require a cover that responds to spring tillage in order to allow planting into warmer soils compared to no-till environments.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 New working collaboration

Future study: Strip-till in cover crop systems, i.e. mechanical considerations when choosing equipment to use in cover cropping systems.

Seed Industry: I would like to see information from seed suppliers regarding the response of commercial corn and soybean varieties when planted into cover crop systems.

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.