Final report for LS18-290
Growing cover crops is a crucial component for the development of sustainable agriculture management strategies in the Southern United States. In order to facilitate adoption of cover cropping and to streamline research and Extension efforts, farmers, research and extension specialists, and federal and NGO representatives from 13 states and territories in the Southern region have worked to create a Southern Cover Crop Council (SCCC) with support from Southern SARE.
During the SCCC planning process, farmers proposed developing a mobile-friendly website with a Regional Cover Crop Resource Guide to assist farmers with cover crop implementation. The Guide will be organized by production system, then by major physiographic regions. Additional information may be incorporated as needed. Content will be provided by cooperating members of the SCCC and approved by a Review Committee.
This education proposal will fund the development of the web structure of the SCCC including home page, resource guide, news and current events, and contact pages. The project leverages a Special Projects grant from Georgia NRCS to develop a pilot Guide section for row crop farmers in the Coastal Plain and Mountains/Ridge and Valley/Piedmont. To ensure inclusiveness and opportunity for diverse institutions, part of this proposed funding will be used for three mini-grants to develop a particular Guide section.
Integrating cover crops into farmers' systems promotes stewardship of the environment by enhancing the quality and productivity of the soil, conserving water resources by reducing water use and protecting water quality, and reducing the need for chemical inputs by breaking pest and disease cycles. The rationale behind this project is that making information easily accessible for a farmer's particular production system and physiographic region will increase cover crop use among farmers/ranchers. Increased adoption of cover cropping will result in better protection of soil and water resources, and a greater economic return to the farmer/rancher.
- Create website Review Committee.
- Create and distribute a call for mini-grant proposals to populate particular production/physiographic region sections.
- Develop a website structure for the SCCC information, including the home page, Regional Cover Crop Resource Guide, news and current events and contact pages. Populate four physiographic region-production system sections of Regional Cover Crop Resource Guide.
- Beta-testing and website effectiveness evaluation.
- Market the Regional Cover Crop Resource Guide.
- - Producer (Educator)
No information provided.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Year 1: During the first year of this grant, we completed objectives 1 and 2, and started work on objectives 3 and 4.
Objective 1 – Create a website review committee. We formed a website Review Committee for the overall structure of the Row Crop/Coastal Plain. This consisted of review committees within the states working on a particular production system and physiographic region, and then further review by a group drawn from the entire Southern region. Groups of experts were pulled together to review and write particular sections. For example, the section of the Cover Crop Resource Guide on Cover Crop Termination had input from 10 Southern Region scientists.
Each production/physiographic region developed a mechanism to incorporate farmer information. For example, Clemson University held stakeholder meetings that included farmers, NRCS personnel, Extension personnel and other experts to develop and review materials. Texas AgriLife relied more on individual interviews with farmers to generate information then review by NRCS and Extension personnel. University of Georgia held face-to-face meetings with Extension specialists, county agents, farmers, NRCS personnel and Agricultural Research Service personnel, then completed the development through email.
Once material was received from the PI leading a development of a section, it was sent out for review to other experts in the Southern SARE region. Materials were then formatted and sent to the web developer for posting.
Objective 2 – Mini-grant call and funding. We advertised the mini-grant call for proposals widely to try to include NGOs as well as 1890 Land Grant Universities. We anticipated funding three mini-grants, and received four proposals. One proposal was from a small pasture-based farm that proposed running an on-farm demonstration project. Although this was a good idea, it did not meet the RFA requirements. We referred this farmer to the SSARE on-farm grant program. We received two proposals from 1890 Land Grants. The proposal from Langston University was for creating vegetable production in the High Plains. This proposal was funded. The second proposal was from another 1890 Land Grant, but was not clear in its objectives. The Board asked them to revise the proposal and resubmit. After several deadline extensions, the institution chose to withdraw the proposal. The final proposal was from the Animal Science Group at Clemson to populate grazing systems in the Piedmont/Mountains Ridge & Valley. Grazing systems was one of the priority areas and this proposal was funded.
Objective 3 – Website structure. The website that can be viewed at southerncovercrops.org. The structure included seven main webpages. A Homepage gives a basic tagline for the mission of the Southern Cover Crops Council (SCCC), a navigation bar, and guides users to pick the production system they are most interested in. The Cover Crop Resource Guide holds Cover Crop Information Sheets for winter and summer planted cover crops, a basic Cover Crop Selection Tool, Planting and Managing cover Crops, Seed Sources, Terminating Cover Crops, Planting Cash Crops in Cover Crop Residue, Equipment Rental, Local Experts, Financial Assistance, and Additional Resources. About Us gives information on the mission of the SCCC, the Executive Committee and Board as well as Standing Committees. Join Us gives information on how to join the Council. News and Events posts cover crop events around the Southern region. We have also develop a Team Portal that allows the Board and Executive Committee to post governance and other working documents. Finally, there is a page informing people how to contact us (Contact).
The content was developed for Row Crop Production in the Coastal Plain, Blacklands, and the Piedmont/Mountains/Ridge&Valley regions. We also developed content for Vegetable Production in the Piedmont/Mountains/Ridge&Valley region and Grazing in the Piedmont/Mountains/Ridge&Valley region. In addition, preliminary Cover Crop information Sheets have been developed for Vegetable Production in the Coastal Plain. These are being shared with University of Florida that is leading the development of this section.
This was a large undertaking and required help from many collaborators across the Southern region. A key part of the Cover Crop resource Guide is the templates for the Cover Crop Information Sheets. These templates can now be revised for use in the other production systems or physiographic regions.
Another large effort was pulling all the information on NRCS assistance for each state together. Clemson University created fact sheets for each state with:
- current cover crop EQUIP rates available and durations allowed to different agricultural stakeholders, and
- current NRCS county conservationist contact information (address, phone number, and email) organized by county.
They have also created a survey to identify cover crop planting and termination equipment cost share or loan programs in each state. This effort is ongoing.
Each state board member provided names of sources of cover crop seeds for their state as well as local experts to populate these pages.
Objective 4 – Beta testing and evaluation. Once the basic structure of the website was developed, we assembled two focus groups to evaluate the ease of navigation and to determine if there is information that is missing. The focus groups were held in January 2019. The first group was county agents and NRCS personnel from across the Southern Region. The second group included people working to develop new website sections. We used a moderated focus group with activities conducted via Zoom to obtain feedback. For example, in the first activity, we gave the group a series of questions and asked them to find the information on the website and record the number of clicks it took. After the activity, we held a discussion about ease of navigation.
The focus groups provided excellent feedback and several parts of the website were restructured based on the feedback to make the website easier to navigate. We also learned the website was not well optimized for mobile devices. We will optimize the website when it reaches its final form.
In addition to the focus groups, we conducted a short evaluation with different stakeholder groups at winter meetings. After giving a brief presentation on the website for row crop production/Coastal Plain, we asked six questions:
Are you currently using cover crops?
How interested are you in cover crop information?
After viewing the SCCC website, how valuable is this cover crop information to you?
How much value would you estimate this info would be worth on a per-acre basis to your farm?
Why would you choose the SCCC website over you current source of cover crop information?
We also presented the website to a group of county agents and NRCS personnel in GA. This group was very interested in cover crop information.
Evaluations of the website content and effectiveness were also conducted at the Southern Cover Crop Conference (Auburn AL July 2019) and the “Sustainable Conservation Soil Management Field Day” held in College Station TX March 3 2020.
The Southern Cover Crop Conference was attended by ~ 300 people. Over half of the attendees were farmers (56%). Twenty eight percent were agricultural professionals or others in the agriculture sector and 16% were researchers. We sat down with 25 attendees at a booth for approximately 20 minutes each, walking them through the website and then allowing them to explore at will. Nineteen were currently using cover crops, five were not, and one provided no answer to the question. Afterwards, a questionnaire was provided for feedback on content and functionality.
Objective 5. The website was introduced at farmer meetings in GA, SC, TX and VA. These efforts will be ongoing. For example, in March 2018, the website was introduced at a Soil Health Field Day to primarily vegetable and row crop producers in SC. It was introduced at the SC Annual Soil and Water Conservation Society Meeting also in March, 2019. We introduced the website to county agents and NRCS personnel in GA, and to the Clemson Horticulture and Row Crop Extension Team Meetings in 2019. It was also integrated into two courses at Clemson University during 2020. The website has also been discussed at various one-on-one / small group meetings with row crop, vegetable, and pasture/grazingland producers and commodity boards.
Out of a group of farmers in VA (n= 20) that largely used cover crops (75%), most indicated they were extremely interested (35%) or very interested (40%) in cover crop information. After viewing the website, most thought the website was very valuable (30%) or somewhat valuable (40%). Forty percent thought the information would be worth up to $5 per acre. They listed area specific information as the top reason to use the website (45%).
Responses from a group of farmers that largely did not use cover crops in TX (92%), indicated over half were very interested (17%) or somewhat interested (47%) in cover crop information. Sixty-two percent of this group indicated the SCCC website information would be valuable to them. Most of this group also put a value of up to $5 per acre on the information. This is a typical response for Texas farmers, who are not as aggressive in adopting sustainable conservation practices as other parts of the U.S. However, it does positively indicate interest in cover cropping practices. Farmers have been universally positive in their feedback that this is a source of information very much in demand for those seeking guidance all in one centralized place. One important outcome of presenting the website and its functionality to farmers at programs has been the increase in personal relationships between Extension specialists and farmers interested in cover cropping information.
We also presented the website to a group of county agents and NRCS personnel in GA. This group was very interested in cover crop information. The majority (68%) indicated the website information would be very valuable to them. The top reason they would choose the SCCC website for cover crop information were trustworthy information and area specific information.
The in-depth evaluations at the Southern Cover Crop conference indicated that 96% found the website very or extremely valuable. Sixty-one percent of those that participated in the evaluation thought the information would be $10/acre or greater in value for their operation. Most of the individual comments indicated we should work toward reducing the number of clicks required to access information.
At the Sustainable Conservation Soil Management Field Day, the response was overwhelmingly positive. All attendees agreed that the website was valuable in their work with farmers. Specific comments received included:
- This is a valuable tool that we need out there
- We really don’t have anything specific for the Texas Blacklands until now
- I did not realize that clover doesn’t perform well here. We keep pushing clover, but maybe we shouldn’t.
- When will the other eco-regions be ready?
The Southern Cover Crops Council website has been developed and is well on its way to having information for the Southern SARE region. A structure has been developed and templates created so other production/physiographic regions can develop materials for their area. We have heard repeatedly from farmers that the most valuable aspect of the website is the region and production specific information.
Google Analytics indicates from July 1, 2019 through June 15, 2020, the website has received 2,621 visitors. Of these 86% were new users. The Southern Cover Crops Council Executive Committee indicates they are receiving several monthly requests to be part of the websites’ email list, indicating there are new users that find the website valuable.
We have also been contacted by the Northeast Cover Crop Council about how we developed the website. They are using our work as a guide.
Overall, indications are that the Southern Cover Crops council website is proving to be a valuable resource.