Adaption of Cover Crops to Build Soil Health in the Northern Plains

Final report for ONC15-012

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $27,021.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2017
Grant Recipient: NDSU
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Producers in the Northern Plains, specifically North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota, struggle with the incorporation of cover crops into rotations because of a short growing season and limited, regionally-specific information. To compound the issue, there is a desperate need to manage the extensive salinity issues in this region brought upon by a 20 year wet cycle and shift in management to shorter growing season crop rotations. Producers in this area estimate that 15- 35% of their cropland is impacted by salinity, drastically reducing yields and degrading soil health. The current management approach used by a majority of producers in the region is “business as usual” with excessive fall and spring tillage and planting of non-salt tolerant crops – the exact opposite of what needs to happen. A recommended management approach to combat the issue is to use water with cropping systems to drive the salts deeper into the soil profile. Using an early season, more salt-tolerant crop, such as a small grain, followed by a cover crop will increase the duration of “something growing and using water” by up to four months. Additionally, the lengthened growing season improves our ability to build soil health and develop more sustainable agronomic systems.

Project Objectives:

Objective/Performance Targets

Objective 1: Collect regionally-specific data throughout the northern and southern Red River Valley on the effectiveness of various cover crop mixes following small grains and soybean using replicated plots.

Objective 1 accomplishments to date: Four replicated cover crop plots were established across the Red River Valley near De Lamere, Wahpeton, Cummings, and Thompson, ND. Sites are located in visible areas so neighboring farmers can monitor the cover crop plots throughout the seasons. After small grain (wheat or barley) harvest in 2015, three cover crop mixes were planted, each containing cereal rye to be compared to a control treatment where only volunteer grain re-growth was permitted. The three mixes seeded included: Mix 1: Cereal Rye, Radish, and Turnip. Mix 2: Cereal Rye, Radish, Turnip, Forage Pea, and Crimson Clover. Mix 3: Cereal Rye, Radish, Turnip, Forage Pea, Crimson Clover, Sorghum/Sudangrass, and Dwarf Essex Rapeseed. The mixes were designed to be additive, with the same basic species in all mixes and additional species added to investigate the potential cost or benefits associated with higher species mixes. Check plots were left as a comparison. Cover crop biomass ranged from 1.1 to 1.7 ton/ac where mixes were seeded and 0.5 to 1.3 where only volunteer small grains re-grew and additional cover crops were not seeded. There were no significant differences in biomass amongst the different cover crop mixes.


Soybeans were planted into the cereal rye cover crop strips in spring 2016. Two of the plots were hailed out or received excessive rain leading to crop failure (Wahpeton and Thompson). Soybean yield and weed pressure were measured on the remaining two plots. Soybean yields were the same or higher on the cereal rye and non-rye strips for both sites (42 bu/ac at the Delamere site; 44 bu/ac in the rye and 39 bu/ac in the non-rye at the Grand Forks site). Additionally weed biomass was 10x higher in the non-rye strips versus the cereal rye strips. This has been observed at other research plots and further highlights the benefits of a cereal rye cover crop for managing weed pressures.


Due to excessive fall rains (between 5-8”), cover crops were not planted following the soybean crop at the De Lamere and Thompson sites. This decision was made by the cooperating farmers to avoid rutting up fields.   The hailed out site in Cummings was abandoned and another location was seeded with cereal rye once insurance determined the stand a loss and soybean were planted into the cereal rye in 2017.  This was done by the farmer to still maintain a presence in the area and have a demonstration site.  The Wahpeton site was seeded to cereal rye in the fall of 2016 followed by soybean in 2017. 

Because of the  condition issues we had at several sites, along with getting a price break on cover crop seed from a local company, we included four other demonstration sites to reach additional farmers.  This included inter-seeding corn with cereal rye and radish at farms in Gardner, Jamestown and Milnor. 

We received funding for two additional years to continue the project through 2019.



Objective 2: Demonstrate the use of various cover crop mixes using full-scale plots installed by partnering producers in close proximity to other established salinity demonstration locations.

Objective 2 accomplishments to date: Farmer cooperators were crucial in the planning and installation of the cover crop plots as well as the distribution of information from the sites.   The farmers are using these sites as examples for the benefits of cover crops in managing weeds, improving trafficability at time of planting and for improving yields. They have shared these results within their communities and with the region. They have extended their knowledge past using cover crops for salinity management to using cover crops for achieving multiple goals on multiple fields. Most recently, Terry Wehlander who is our cooperator at the Delamere site, presented information from his plots at the state-level Cornvention, which drew 340 attendees. Terry will also participated on a soil health panel through the National Corn Growers Association Soil Health Partnership in San Antonio, TX on March 3, 2017 and shared information on a national stage to an anticipated 250 attendees. Doug Toussaint, cooperating farmer from Wahpeton, shared information on how he is now using cover crops at the Conservation Tillage Conference in Fargo (drawing 330 attendees), presented again on his use of cover crops at the Advanced Crop Advisors workshop in Fargo (drawing 250 consultants) and also the Midwest Cover Crops Annual Meeting in Michigan (March 2017, drawing 100 attendees). The cooperating farmers are effectively taking information generated from the plots to other farmers.


Objective 3: Increase education opportunities by demonstrating additional practices for salinity management and opportunities for improving soil health to an already existing framework of demonstration sites that have well attended annual field days.

Objective 3 accomplishments to date: Field days in 2015 were held at each field site during late fall, drawing a total of 284 participants. We ramped up the field days in 2016, for a total of 17 field days/workshops associated directly with this project reaching 687 participants. The group of participants included farmers, government agencies, Ag industry professionals, and Ag students from a local college. The increase in field days and attendance was a result of working a deal with cover crop seed companies to purchase seed at a lesser cost for the demo sites. This allowed us to incorporate additional sites into this project for demonstration purposes (sites in Gardner, Jamestown, Milnor). Nearly half of the soil health extension programming was devoted to these sites and almost 100% of the extension programs were focused on integrating cover crops (this would include a total of 23 field days/workshops, reaching 1,153 attendees).  In 2017, we held five additional workshops and field tours reaching 150 farmers with informational about cover crops.  We will continue to hold field days and workshops throughout the fall of 2017.

Lastly, we have produced 14 videos related to the SARE demonstration sites from 2015-2017.  Cooperating farmers are featured in these videos.  Videos are posted on the NDSU Soil Health webpage (


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dave Mueller
  • Doug Toussaint
  • Terry Wehlander
  • David Burkland


Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

50 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
7 On-farm demonstrations
5 Published press articles, newsletters
26 Tours
26 Webinars / talks / presentations
26 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

2,000 Farmers participated
391 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

In addition to information included in the objectives section (outreach activities and production of 14 videos), we also featured SARE sites on the AgWeek TV and magazine column Soil Health Minute series.  Twelve episodes aired in 2017 with accompanying columns.  This reached 40,000 subscribers and viewers in the northern plains region. 

We also wrote a publication "Incorporating Cover Crops" that provides research based guidelines and farmer tips for including cover crops on-farm. 

2017 is not over yet and we are just getting into our cover crop season.  We will continue to host field days and workshops as part of the continuation of this grant through 2019. 

Learning Outcomes

54 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:


In two years time, the farmer cooperators have gotten heavily involved in the planning process, installation, and monitoring of the plots on their farms. By working one-on-one with NDSU specialists, each cooperator has obtained a wealth of knowledge on cover crops and salinity management, making them a local expert. Farmer cooperators have also tried cover crops in other problem areas on-farm and are seeing positive results; thus, this project is impacting acres beyond the plots. Since the initiation of this project two years ago, these farmers have become ambassadors for soil health and cover crops by talking to their neighbors and presenting at numerous workshops and field days. Extension County Agents have gained experience working with cover crops and soil health, making them a resource for producers in their county interested in soil health and salinity management. County agents are now hosting workshops and field tours related to cover crops in their counties. Finally, this project has reached just shy of 1,000 farmers and ag industry leaders displaying that cover crops can be a incorporated into rotations, even with the short growing season of the Northern Great Plains.


Major accomplishments in 2016 were the adoption of cover crops to other fields outside of the demonstration site by cooperating farmers, the incorporation of cover crops into surrounding farmer’s systems and the high level of outreach achieved. The interest in this program has launched soil health and the use of cover crops to another level, so it is exciting that we can continue this project through 2019.

Information Products

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.