Adoption of Cover Crops to Build Soil Health in the Northern Plains (Continuation)

Final report for ONC17-036

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2017: $29,488.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2020
Grant Recipient: North Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Historically, farmers in the northern Great Plains have felt that cover crops “do not fit” in their rotation primarily because of a short growing season. After several open winters with rampant soil erosion and an national focus on soil health, the mind-set of farmers in the region is changing and they are more willing to make adjustments to management approaches used on-farm.  In 2015, four research/demonstration sites were established throughout eastern North Dakota using a SARE Partnership grant.  Those demonstration projects were wrapped up in 2019, however, not without some challenges in the final years of the project.  Field conditions for three of the four sites were extremely wet during harvest in 2018, planting and harvest in 2019.  Modifications to on-farm demonstrations were put in place - for example, using cover crops only on areas accessible to equipment or switching fields to still be able to show successful establishment of cover crops on accessible fields.  The focus from on-farm field days during at time when farmers experienced limited available time to attend a field day also switched to winter meeting support in the form of Cafe Talks discussion-based meetings (winter 2018, 2019) and inclusion/support of farmer panels at the Dakota Innovation Research and Technology (DIRT) Workshop  ( in December 2019.  The Soil Sense Podcast ( was also developed to provide information on cover crop adoption and collaboration amongst farmers, consultants, research and Extension in the northern plains.  Over the course of the project, face-to-face Extension programs held on-site and at related locations have reached 4,500 attendees and on-line development of videos and the podcast with over 185,000 plays from an international audience.  

Project Objectives:
  1. Collect regionally-specific data throughout the northern and southern Red River Valley on the effectiveness of various cover crop mixes following small grains using replicated plots.
  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.
  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 (attendance has ranged from 45 to 135 for field days at the four demonstration locations).
  4. Develop on-line resources, such as videos, podcast, digital booklets, to be available to a larger audience. (new objective implemented because of challenging field conditions starting in 2018).



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


Materials and methods:

This project is a continuation of a SARE Partnership Grant (2014-2016) where NDSU research and Extension partnered with local farmers in four different counties in North Dakota to implement cover crops into rotation on marginal ground (whether it be saline, water logged or another issue).  Farmers diversified their rotations and selected crops which fit the soil conditions. For example, cooperating farmers would incorporate small grain crops on a field if it was salt-affected or a deep rooted crop like sunflower if excess moisture was an issue in the field. 

Cover crops were then included based on the cash crop grown.  If a small grain cash crop was grown, then a cover crop was seeded following the cash crop.  If a cash crop of sunflowers were grown, cover crops were seeded with the sunflowers to manage moisture (primary goal) with the side benefits of managing weed and pest pressures.  If soybean were the desired cash crop, then we tried to get cereal rye established in the field the year prior to manage moisture (and salts) prior to planting soybean.    

Our goal was to use approaches that could be implemented easily on-farm and met the goals of the area where the demonstration site was located, while at the same time showing some of the possibilities with using cover crops.  

Research results and discussion:

The Years Farmers Want to Forget (2018-2019):  Weather was again challenging from 2018 - 2019, the Sargent County demonstration site was late to be planted to a cash crop (leaving soybean as the only option, but not a desirable option given the soil conditions).  This location received 10" inches of precipitation in 2018 in addition to the average (according to the farmer cooperator), making it difficult to apply crop protection products, harvest and seed cover crops.  This farmer cooperator is considering seeding a perennial grass into this field in 2019 as a result of "always fighting conditions" in this field; however, wet conditions again in 2019 left this field as an unmanaged prevented planting field.  At the Traill County location, wheat residue was chisel plowed and cover crops (barley, radish, turnip) were broadcast and incorporated with a vertical tillage tool in 2018.  Due to an early wheat harvest, the cover crops had time to establish and put on some growth.  Though it is not ideal to do a tillage pass prior to seeding cover crops, this is in line with the comfort level of the farmer cooperator and pretty typical for that area when using cover crops. In 2019, the demonstration site was not accessible and cover crops were established on a neighboring field with more favorable conditions. The Grand Forks location experienced some of the highest salinity pressures to date and establishing a cash crop was challenging, let along a cover crop.  Combined with a late, challenging harvest in 2018, barley was seeded on headlands of several fields and headlands to improve conditions, but not directly seeded on the previously designated plots.  In 2019, we were unable seed any cover crops at that location.  In Wahpeton, we continued with the cover crops in sunflower approach on three fields (40' x 60' wide replicated strips) and measured yield and soil response along with cover crop biomass.  For a second year, we found a slight decrease (though not significant) in sunflower yield as a result of the use of cover crops.  Though it is not significant, it is enough of a difference to concern the farmer cooperator.  We continued to evaluate this practice in 2019, adding an additional treatment of cover crops interceded after Sunflower establishment.  We found the cover crops seeded at the same time as sunflowers had higher biomass and higher yielding sunflowers than the inter-seeded cover crops.  We think this was because the cover crops used excess moisture.  The partnering farmer has decided that this practice is economically feasible for border strips around fields, but not entire fields.  This practice has gained interest and results were presented at Sunflower U (sunflower association meeting in Bismarck, ND) in 2018 to talk about ways to think out of the box.  

Given challenging harvest conditions, field days during harvest were near impossible in 2018 and 2019.  Weather conditions turned from warm and reasonable to cold and snow in mid-October for some locations in both years.  There wasn't an opportunity to share results or have field days at any of the locations for either year.  Therefore, we focused efforts on web-available resources and winter meetings.  We continued to distribute the Building Soil Health and Incorporating Cover Crops Booklets at field days and workshops (nearly 7,500 have been distributed to date) which are also available on the NDSU Soil Health webpage:  We also added a third booklet on Grazing Cover Crops, where we have distributed over 2,500 copies. Additional videos were also added to the NDSU Soil Health website - a total of 99 videos are now available with nearly 160,000 views.  Twitter has been an outstanding tool for delivering information as well, where @NDSUsoilhealth has over 7,500 followers (with over 8,500 tweets since 2015).  The Soil Sense podcast has also been very popular with two seasons produced, receiving over 26,000 plays.  The first annual Dakota Innovation Research and Technology (DIRT) Workshop was held in 2019, and using SARE funding, we were able to have 6 farmer panels (with three to four farmers each).  This was a highlight of the workshop. 

The Cusp...2017: Weather was a challenge in 2017, most demonstration sites received too much moisture which delayed harvest and also the seeding of cover crops post-harvest.  At the Sargent County site, forage barley was planted late as a result of a wet spring followed by a late seeding of cover crops (September 7).  This demonstration site/field has water management and salinity issues - it has always been difficult to plant and harvest.  There was very little establishment of the cover crops (consisting of radish, flax and cereal rye), however the volunteer barley created a nice green matt this fall.  We learned from this site that planting time of cover crops is critical in North Dakota. Cover crops need to be seeded by August 15 to get sufficient growth out of radish and other broadleaf plants.  Cereal rye can be planted later in the season, but seeding rates need to be increased the later the cover crop is seeded.  We produced four videos addressing timelines of seeding (all available on the NDSU Soil Health webpage:  At this location, we were able to conduct an earthworm study as an evaluation of soil health based on salt level in the soil.  Our goal was to be able o apply an easy "soil health test" of looking for earthworms to challenging soils.  At an EC of 1.0 mmhos/cm, earthworm populations declined and the community was dominated by adults rather than juveniles.  This information is summarized in the video produced on-site (titled: Biological Activity in Saline Areas).  

In Traill County, we again had issues with getting in on time because of excess moisture.  We did find another cooperator in the area (Tim Kozojed) who was interested in trying cover crops both across his field and on saline/water logged areas.  So, we worked with him (the timing was better given his rotation) to get some cover crops established. Two videos were produced from his field where cover crops were flown on into soybean before leaf drop to control erosion and manage moisture along with cereal rye and barley seeded on the salt-affected ground to manage moisture and weed pressures.  We produced two videos from this field (Titled: Cereal rye and barley to manage salinity and flying on cover crops into soybean).  

The Grand Forks County site was also extremely wet at harvest and we could not get cover crops seeded at this location.   We purchased the radish seed for this site, which was spring wheat as a cash crop, with the goal to seed different radish rates and evaluate decomposition of the wheat straw residue.  The cooperating farmer was not comfortable going in with equipment given the wet field conditions.

At the Richland County site, which was sunflower with cover crop seeded at the same time, we were able to collect yield, cover crop biomass, fertility and complete soil health analyses in the lab.  We found no difference in yield or oil content of the sunflower between the replicated strips on three fields.  This approach helped manage moisture and weeds and we are interested in measuring how it might impact beneficial insects for pest management.  We produced a video at this location as part of the AgWeek TV Soil Health Minute (09 SHM Cover Crops into Sunflower;  We feel this may be a reasonable approach for this particular farm, but need more information to make a recommendation.   

Field days were limited in 2017 because in some cases there wasn't much to show or by the time there was something to show, farmers were pushing hard at harvest and not available.  We did put together a booklet titled, Incorporating Cover Crops (also available at  This booklet is full of tips and tricks for incorporating cover crops in rotation effectively.  It includes information on where to start with species selection based on goals, rates, timing etc.  We have distributed over 1,500 copies of this booklet to date.   We also produced several other videos in 2017 using these SARE Partnership sites and other, so there are now a total of 70 videos available on the NDSU Soil Health webpage.  

The Good Years 2015-2016:  We made great progress on the field demonstration sites in the first two years of this project.  Different cover crop mixes were seeded after small grain harvest, broadleaf crops were seeded into a living cover. Soil, cover crop, crop yield and weed pressures were documented and produced some really nice datasets.  We found that broadleaf crop yields (mainly soybean) were not reduced by planting into a living rye cover crop.  We also found that weed biomass was 10x lower where rye was established and growing versus areas with only residue.  We filmed several videos on-site and held field days at every location in both years.  

Participation Summary
9 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

100 Consultations
48 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
5 On-farm demonstrations
105 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
75 Webinars / talks / presentations
25 Workshop field days
90 Other educational activities: Soil Sense podcast - 31 total episodes with over 26,000 plays; videos filmed related to project:59 with nearly 160,000 views

Participation Summary:

4,000 Farmers participated
600 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The SARE Partnership sites are part of a larger program to deliver information on soil health building management practices to farmers, consultants, industry, researchers and other educators. This makes it hard to differentiate the educational materials exclusive to these sites from others.  

In 2019, 10 videos were filmed and a podcast was developed.  The AgWeek Soil Health Minute continued through 2019, with 10 TV segments and 24 written articles.  We incorporated information on cover crops generated through this project at the Dakota Innovation Research and Technology (DIRT) Workshop.  The Cafe Talk program expanded using Research Extension Center researchers and Extension to host 6 meetings in the summer 2019 to address prevented plant tools using cover crops and 25 individual meetings in winter 2019-2020.  

In 2018, 32 videos and 2 extension booklets (Incorporating Cover Crops; Grazing Cover Crops) were developed which incorporated concepts being used at these sites.  The AgWeek Soil Health Minute continued in 2018, with 13 TV segments and 24 written articles.  We incorporated information and recommendations from these sites into general programming associated with large conferences (Midwest Cover Crops Council Annual Meeting in March, 2018 and the Conservation Tillage Conference in December, 2018).  The Cafe Talk program also includes information we learn from these sites. 

In 2017, 20 videos and 1 extension booklet were developed which incorporated information and concepts being used at these sites.  NDSU Soil Health also has the NDSU Soil Health Minute with AgWeek TV and magazine (a regional program and magazine), which included 12 TV segments and 18 written articles.  Information from the partnership sites was included or weaved into the story and in some cases the segment was filmed on site (Sargent and Richland Counties).  We also hosted several field days to share information, again sometimes at other locations, but information from the partnership sites was incorporated. With the education and outreach component of this project, we continue to focus on what the farmers want.  We ask for feedback on how the information could be delivered so that it can be effectively used.  In 2017, farmers wanted visuals of how the practices were being used.  In 2018, we are shifting more to question and answer style delivery of information so farmers can get customized information.  This tells us that they know what it looks like and now they need more specific information for on-farm implementation.

2015-2016 efforts are summarized in prior report.

Learning Outcomes

1,154 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • I would say that all farmers who attended a workshop or field day gained some sort of knowledge/skill set - evaluations support this.

  • adjust crop rotation to more suitable crop for soil conditions (for example small grains back into a corn-soybean rotation on problematic fields that may have salts or water management issues)

  • seeding of cover crops by August 15 (we continue to emphasize this aspect of using cover crops and most are incorporating this advice on their farms)

  • including cover crops where possible (may be seeding after a small grain crop or interseeding)

Project Outcomes

500 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
8 Grants received that built upon this project
10 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The primary outcome of having the Partnership Sites is that we are building a soil health network of farmers, scientists, consultants, state organizations, industry and extension.  We have conducted a knowledge network analysis and written a manuscript that is published in Soil Use and Management journal.  This knowledge network is leading to better relationships amongst individuals with common interests and on-farm adoption of practices.  

Success stories:

Several of the cooperating farmers (Terry Wehlander - Sargent County and Toussaints - Richland County) have been featured in magazines such as Successful Farming, Progressive Farmer, Dakota Farmer, and The Sunflower Magazine.  Having them highlighted for their efforts is a great success of this project.

Additionally farmers involved in this project are more engaged in commodity organizations like the ND Corn Council and the Sunflower group.  


I think remaining flexible with this program is key given the potential impacts of weather conditions and the heavy involvement of farmers.  I have appreciated how flexible this program has been in allowing us to reach farmers with information in new ways.  

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.