Research and Demonstration of Precision Planting of Cover Crop Mixtures for Improving Farm Profit and Soil Health

Progress report for ONC20-078

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $39,995.00
Projected End Date: 10/14/2022
Grant Recipient: Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Amir Sadeghpour
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
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Project Information

Summary:

This farmer-driven proposal builds on a 2015 NC SARE (FNC15-1018) funded project to Mr. Ralph Upton Jr. entitled “Utilizing precision application of cover crops to minimize planting challenges while maximizing benefits to corn”. Although only funded for one year at 1 site, Upton and a local consultant have continued the precision cover crop trial for 4 years without outside funding, due to the positive and interesting results observed and great interests from growers in Illinois and neighboring states. They have identified production advantages of up to 50 bu/acre with precision planting of cover crop species and mixes planted in various placement in relation to the corn row, compared to no cover crop, no-till treatments. This proposal aims to answer some growers questions including (1) does corn yield benefits at Upton’s farm expand to other soil types/environments?; (2) does a 6-yr precision planted cover crop mixtures improve soil health?; and (3) what are the economic benefits of this system? Integrating this research with outreach approaches including hosting on-farm field days, writing a fact sheet being integrated into student’s course material, and presenting at regional/national meeting, this project will increase cover crop adoption before corn and improve sustainability of corn-soybean cropping systems.

Project Objectives:

The objective of this proposal is to evaluate the effectiveness of precision planting cover crop mixtures (skipping the corn row or planting winter-killed cover crops on the row) vs. cover crop mixtures (no skipped rows) before corn in a corn-soybean cropping system to:

  • Evaluate soil health benefits of precision planted cover crops using a medium-term trial
  • Quantify cover crop performance
  • Assess corn performance and quantify the end of season N following corn harvest
  • Evaluate the economics of each cropping system
  • Demonstrate soil health and economic benefits through on-farm research and novel outreach methods

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

Experimental locations and treatments:

In 2020, two on-farm trials were initiated (Pike and Upton Jr.'s farms). The third trial was not initiated due to late harvest in Seidel farm but instead, a rye-clover mixture trial was started in Carbondale, IL. For the two on-farm trials, five treatments were: (1) no-CC control (2) skipping the corn row, vetch beside the corn row, winter-rye-annual ryegrass-vetch mixture on the middle rows (3) oat/radishes mix on the corn row, vetch on the row besides corn, winter-rye-annual ryegrass-vetch mixture on the middle rows (4) skipping the corn row, crimson clover beside the corn row, winter-rye-annual ryegrass-crimson clover mixture on the middle rows (5) oat/radishes mix on the corn row, crimson clover on the row besides corn, winter-rye-annual ryegrass-crimson clover mixture on the middle rows. The trial in Carbondale, IL has clover alone, clover mixed with rye, and clover on corn row and rye in the middle rows (precision planted). 

Similar to 2020, we conducted two on-farm trials (Pike and Upton Jr.'s farms) and a research farm trial in Carbondale, IL for 2021. Treatments were similar to 2020. 

Planting dates for cover crops in 2021 were October 10 in Pike's farm (Marion, IL), October 8 in Upton Jr.'s farm (Springerton, IL), and October 15 at the ARC (Carbondale, IL). 

Crop Measurements:

Cover crop samples (3 samplings of 0.2 m2 area (6 ft2) will be taken in spring prior to burndown. In Carbondale, we sampled cover crops prior to frost. Cover crop samples will be analyzed to determine (i) N uptake and (ii) C/N ratio. Corn grain will be planted in each site and will be managed by farmer standard practices. After combine harvesting, corn yield will be determined and corn grain will be analyzed for nutrient removal.

Typical Soil Measurements:

Prior to planting cover crops, we soil sampled. Soil samples were collected (0-2, 2-8” depths) to determine soil pH and general soil fertility. We are also processing samples to run for permanganate oxidizable C (POXC) as an indicator sensitive to short-term soil changes for all farms. Prior to planting cover crops, used a deep core sampler to sample soil at 0-2, 2-8, and 8-36” depths to evaluate soil C and N. After harvesting corn, similar sampling will be performed to estimate soil C and also N leaching potential in study sites.

Samples for 2020 has been collected, and sent to lab for analysis and also samples for 2021 have been collected, processed and already been shipped to the Brookside Lab for soil analysis. 

Soil Health from Upton Jr. Farm:

In year two at Upton Jr. farm (long-term study), we proposed to evaluate soil health for each cover cropping system (3 replications). In 2020, soil samples are taken from three treatments at in and out of the row (corn row vs. cover crop rows) at 0-2 and 2-8” to assess soil aggregation and aggregate stability, aggregate associated C and N, and soil enzymes along with typical soil fertility and POXC. Also, soil compaction as well as soil bulk density will be measured for three depths (0-2, 2-8, and 8-36”); latter will allow us to evaluate soil C stocks over depths. In fall 2021, we will measure those proposed measurements along with infiltration at 0-2” depth. These measurements will be done in Sadeghpour’s Laboratory or by commercial labs.

We collected these samples in year 1 of the long-term study as a part of Justin Berberich (MS student) thesis chapter. Soil samples have been processed, and ran for soil aggregation, aggregate stability, C and N,  soil enzymes (BG; C cycle), and POXC. We collected samples for bulk density measurements as well to calculate soil C stocks over depths. 

We did not measure soil infiltration as our SATURO equipment was not functioning well and we could not trust the data. 

Outreach activities:

The trials will be conducted on-farm which is the best form of outreach due to increased peer-to-peer interactions. We will share the results with growers in multiple ways including two field days in 2021. We have initiated writing a factsheet on use of precision mixed cover cropping which will become a part of the Soil Fertility & Fertilizes Course (CSEM/PSAS 447) at SIU-C. We have initiated a “school to farm” approach to bring novel ideas through our students to farms. We expect to publish at least one peer-reviewed journal article. We are partnering with Illinois Farm Bureau and especially Lauren Lurkins (Director of Research for Natural Resources in Illinois) and Austin Omer to reach as many growers as possible.  

We have presented our research at multiple field days and are revising the fact sheet to release at the final project report date. We are currently working on a manuscript from data collected from the long-term study (Upton Jr. farm) to be submitted this summer. 

Research results and discussion:

The trial was initiated in Fall 2020. Soil samples were collected from each site and sent to the Brookside Lab for general soil fertility. We also processed soil samples for aggregate distribution and stability, enzyme activity, and POXC (Upton Jr. South; Springerton Site). 

Results for the Upton Jr. South (long-term study - soil health evaluation):

The objective of this study was to (i) evaluate the effect of cover crop mixtures vs a no-cover crop control on soil chemical and biological properties and (ii) assess whether precision planting increase or decrease soil nutrients, soil permanganate oxidizable carbon (POXC) and carbon (SOC) stocks “on” and “off” the corn row over three depths (0-5, 5-20, and 20-90 cm) after five years. Treatments were (i) a no-cover crop control (NCC); (ii) no cover on corn row, hairy vetch (V) on middle row, and winter cereal rye (WCR) on the outside row of corn (NOVR); and (iii) oats and radishes on the corn row, V on the middle row, and WCR on the outside row (ORVR). Our results indicated NCC had lower SOC stocks than the NOVR and ORVR only at 0-5 cm depth. We found that POXC was more sensitive to changes in soil C and POXC was higher in ORVR at 2-8 cm than NCC. At 0-5 cm depth, cover cropping increased soil test P (STP). Soil test P declined over depth reflecting its immobility in the soil. Soil test K (STK) was higher in cover crop treatments than the no-cover crop control at 0-5 cm depth. Soil test K was higher on corn row indicating both cover crops (oats plus radishes) and corn decomposition and release of K increases STK. Soil test sulfur was similar among treatments but higher at 20-90 cm depth reflecting S leaching. These results indicate cover cropping can benefit soil after five years. Figures for SARE Report

Results for the Upton Jr. North (Springerton Site) and Pike (Marion Site):

Cover Crop Phase:

We have collected cover crop biomass samples, calculated biomass in lbs/acre, processed the cover crop samples and have sent subsamples to lab for analysis for the two on-farm sites for 2020 year and are working on the research farm data currently. 

We have also collected cover crop biomass samples in the fall 2021 and we will collect biomass samples in spring 2022 and process those as well. 

These data are being analyzed and will be presented at the final project report and will be a part of Justin Berberich MS thesis. 

Corn Phase:

Harvesting dates for grain corn in 2021 were September 22 in Pike's farm (Marion, IL), October 5 in Upton Jr.'s farm (Springerton, IL), and October 5 at the ARC (Carbondale, IL). 

At each site, corn stand count was recorded and 10 ears were harvested. Corn yield components including total kernel weight, kernel weight per ear, number of kernels per ear, and 1000-grain weight. A subsample of corn grain was sent to Brookside Lab for grain nutrient analysis. 

Corn stand density was higher in Marion site (30500 plants ac-1) than the Springerton site (28275 plant ac-1) reflecting on later planting date in the Springerton site. Fig. 1 Stand count. There was a positive and linear relationship between corn stand density and grain yield in Springerton (R2 = 0.69; P<0.01). Per 1000 corn plant increase, corn grain yield increased by 8.4 bu ac-1. This relationship was not as strong in the Marion site (R2 = 0.48).

Corn grain yields (15.5% moisture) were greater in Marion site (248 bu ac-1) than the Springerton site (164 bu ac-1) reflecting on earlier planting and corn. Corn grain yield was not influenced by cover crop or site × cover crop interaction in 2021. Fig. 2. Corn grain yield. However, addition of legumes as cover crops and especially hairy vetch increased corn grain yield by 19 bu ac-1 that although statistically similar to the no cover crop control, it is economically substantial ($124 profit; not including the cover crop costs). These data indicate as our project moves forward, including economic data plays an important role in deciding which cover crop combination could be most profitable for growers in Illinois.

Corn grain yield was most related to the kernel weight ear-1 (g) (R2 = 0.93; P<0.01). Cover crop treatments significantly influenced the kernel weight ear-1. Integrating vetch + oat + rye (OVR) or skipped row vetch (RVskip) resulted in the larger grain size as indicated by heavier kernels ear-1 than the no cover crop control and treatments that included clover. Fig. 3. Corn kernel weight

Kernel number ear-1 and 1000-grain weight were not influenced by cover crop treatments or the interaction of site x cover crop treatment. 

After receiving corn grain nutrients, we will calculate corn nutrient removal and balances for each treatment. 

From the proof of concept trials that we based on proposal on, we have published a peer-reviewed journal article:

Sadeghpour, A., Adeyemi, O., Hunter, D., Luo, Y., & Armstrong, S. 2021. Precision planting impacts on winter cereal rye growth, nutrient uptake, spring soil temperature and adoption cost. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742170520000411

In this paper, we discussed precision planting of winter cereal rye vs. normal planting and that reducing seeding rates in precision planting improved farm economics while providing the same nutrient loss reduction benefits.  

We have also presented our results in several conferences including ASA-CSSSA-SSSA annual meeting in Salt Lake City, UT. 

Sadeghpour, A., Adeyemi, D. Hunter, Y. Luo, S. Armstrong. 2020. Precision planting impacts on winter cereal rye growth, nutrient uptake, spring soil temperature, and adoption cost. North Central Extension-Industry Conference, De Moines, IW (Virtual), Nov. 18-19 (Abstract).

Berberich, J., A. Margenot, R. Ibarra, J. Pike, A. Sadeghpour. 2021. Does precision planting of cover crop mixtures provide zonal soil benefits? SIU Research & Creative Activities Virtual Forum, Carbondale, IL (Virtual), April 15 [Poster].

Berberich, J., A. Margenot, R. Ibarra, G. Williams, J. Pike, A. Sadeghpour. 2021. Precision planting of cover crops impacts soil enzymes and soil nutrient distribution. ASA, CSSA, SSSA, Salt Lake City, UT, November7-10[Poster].

Berberich, J., A. Margenot, R. Ibarra, G. Williams, J. Pike, A. Sadeghpour. 2022. Precision planting of cover crop mixtures affects soil carbon, enzymes and soil nutrient distribution. NREC – Live, Champaign, IL, Feb. 16 [Poster].

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Journal articles
1 Online trainings
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
11 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

250 Farmers participated
500 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Outreach activities:

The trials will be conducted on-farm which is the best form of outreach due to increased peer-to-peer interactions. We will share the results with growers in multiple ways including two field days each year at two of the farms, writing a factsheet on use of precision mixed cover cropping which will become a part of the Soil Fertility & Fertilizes Course (CSEM/PSAS 447) at SIU-C. We have initiated a “school to farm” approach to bring novel ideas through our students to farms. We expect to publish at least one peer-reviewed journal article. We will partner with Illinois Farm Bureau and especially Lauren Lurkins (Director of Research for Natural Resources in Illinois) to reach as many growers as possible. 

At the moment, we are finalizing a cover crop fact sheet and are planning to set up field days for demonstration of precision cover crop mixtures this coming year. 

Our research was presented during many field days in 2021:

Amir Sadeghpour:

Agronomy Research Center (SIU Carbondale); around 100 participants

Belleville Research Center (SIU Belleville; BRC): around 150-200 participants 

Also, growers involved in this projects are well-known among farming community in Illinois. So far, three presentations are scheduled to happen:

Interview with USDA-NRCS in Illinois (3/5/2021) - Presenter: Mr. Ralph Upton Jr.

Mr. John Pike:

  • March 2, Booneville. IN
    • IN SWCD Winter Workshop
    • Cover Crops and Nitrogen Management
    • in-person.  60 attended.
  • March 8
    • Advanced Soil Health Training
    • Zoom, 20 participated.
  • March 16, , IN Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative Webinar Series
    • Precision Cover Crop Planting,  Options for Making Cover Crop Systems Work
    • 60 registered from IL, IN, KY, OH, Canada
  • April 9,
    • Syngenta So IL District
    • Cover Crop and Nutrient Management Training Session
    • In-field, Marion, IL, 24 attended.
  • July 21, 22 – Advanced Soil Health Training, Vincennes, IN
    • This was part of Retailer Training Program for The Nature Conservancy
    • in-person, 25 attended
  • July 27
    • Booneville, IN SWCD Nutrient Management Field Day
    • Nutrient Management, Cover Crops, Soil Pit Demo
    • in-field, 45 attended
  • August 16
    • Wayne Co./ILFB Nutrient Loss Reduction Field Day
    • So. IL NRECE Nitrogen Trials/Cover Crop
    • In-person, 50 attended
  • August 24
    • Cover Crop Management for High Carbon Systems
      • Lawrenceville AM, 65 attended
      • McLeansboro, PM, 50 attended
  • August 25
    • Helm’s Seed (Freeburg)
    • DeKalb/Asgrow/Bayer Producer Dinner Meeting
      • Belleville
    • Nitrogen and Cover Crop Management pres.
    • 20 Attended
  • August 25
    • IL Wheat Association
    • High Carbon System Management
    • 80 attended
  • November 4-5
    • Advanced Soil Health Training
    • Cover Crop and Soil Management
    • Nitrogen Management and Seasonal Observations
    • Soil Pit Demo
    • Marion, IL, 25 attended

We presented results at State and National conferences including:

Berberich, J., A. Margenot, R. Ibarra, J. Pike, A. Sadeghpour. 2021. Does precision planting of cover crop mixtures provide zonal soil benefits? SIU Research & Creative Activities Virtual Forum, Carbondale, IL (Virtual), April 15 [Poster].

Berberich, J., A. Margenot, R. Ibarra, G. Williams, J. Pike, A. Sadeghpour. 2021. Precision planting of cover crops impacts soil enzymes and soil nutrient distribution. ASA, CSSA, SSSA, Salt Lake City, UT, November7-10[Poster].

Berberich, J., A. Margenot, R. Ibarra, G. Williams, J. Pike, A. Sadeghpour. 2022. Precision planting of cover crop mixtures affects soil carbon, enzymes and soil nutrient distribution. NREC – Live, Champaign, IL, Feb. 16 [Poster].

 

 

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

On-farm trials will be conducted with 4 replications to establish the ecosystem benefits of precision cover cropping including soil health, and farm profitability. An agronomy factsheet (on precision cover crop mixtures) and a journal article will be written. We will host two field days to showcase precision cover crop mixtures and share results with growers. Two previous field days at the Upton Farm had 120 and 200 participants so regional interest of the precision planted cover crops is high and the ability to provide scientific documentation to support previous agronomic findings will be of interest to a large number of farmers from IL and surrounding states. To evaluate if percentage of cover cropping and especially precision cover cropping is increased, we will pre-survey growers to assess their perception of precision cover crop mixtures prior to corn and then we will post-survey growers in field days and also conduct a follow up postcard survey (50 farmers). This was delayed due to COVID but we will conduct the surveys in our first field day. We have initiated training an undergraduate student (Justin Berberich). Justin (coming from farming family) is transitioning to a Masters program in our lab after May 2021. 

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.