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.
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.
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. We developed a draft structure of 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 for Row Crop Production/Coastal Plain has been developed over the past year and this section of the website is largely completed. 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 were drafted, discussed, and finalized through a group of Extension specialists, county agents, farmers, NRCS personnel and Agricultural Research Service personnel. This group met face-to-face twice and completed much of the work by email. These templates can now be revised for use in the other production systems or physiographic regions.
We began working on several other production system/physiographic regions in the past year. Clemson University identified stakeholders to review and revise cover crop information sheets for Grazing Systems and Vegetable Systems in the Mountains/Ridge & Valley/Piedmont. This review and revision work is ongoing. Texas A&M and Prairieview developed data on cover crop species that perform best in row crop production in different regions in Texas. This data will be used to revise the cover crop information sheets and develop material for the Blackland physiographic region. Langston University conducted a literature review of published and unpublished information on cover crop use in the southern Great Plains and carried out a cover crop trial in partnership with a local farmer. This information will be used to revise existing information and create material for Vegetable Production Systems in the southern Great Plains.
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?
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.
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.
Texas A&M has also developed a plan to use eye-tracking software at upcoming events to provide data on where farmers and other users spend most time on the website.
Objective 5. We began the marketing efforts this winter with the Row Crop/Coastal Plain region. The website has been introduced at farmer meetings in GA, SC, TX and VA. These efforts will be ongoing. For example, in March, 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. We introduced the website to county agents and NRCS personnel in GA, and to the Clemson Horticulture and Row Crop Extension Team Meetings. It was also integrated into two courses at Clemson University.
For the first year of this project, we do not have learning outcomes to report.
For the first year of the project, project outcomes are the creation of the website structure, populating the Row Crop/Coastal Plain information and revision of the website structure based on the evaluations.