Utilizing cover crops for additional benefits in Delaware

Final report for ONE16-280C

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $11,111.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: University of Delaware
Region: Northeast
State: Delaware
Project Leader:
Mark VanGessel
University of Delaware
Expand All

Project Information


A series of extension meetings and materials were developed around the topic of increasing the benefits of cover crops.  Four demonstration sites were set up for field walks and to allow farmers to visit whenever it was suitable for them.  160 farmers participated in two workshops, a field day, and two field walks held throughout the project. A website was created to provide images of the cover crop demonstrations at the two sites for farmers to compare the growth with what the cover crop development was at previous time points.

While attendance at field walks and surveys/assessment participation was low, the project was successful.  A stronger network of research/extension/agency personnel developed as a result of this project.  Surveys and questionnaires at extension meetings show the majority of the respondents are using cover crops and termination is occurring two to three weeks prior to planting.  The most common reason for not planting cover crops is that the grain crops are harvested too late in the season.  The two most common concerns about terminating cover crops closer to planting are poor stands due to too much biomass and issues with slugs. Soil health is the primary reason for planting cover crops.  The information obtained from this project was very useful in developing outreach materials, as preliminary data for other grants, and as the foundation for numerous recommendations to farmers on how best to manage cover crops to maximize their benefits.


Project Objectives:

The goal of this project is to demonstrate the benefit of later termination timing of cover crop and the most current information for cover crop management specific to Delaware.  A project coordinator will provide better outreach integration across projects and agencies.  In addition, a project coordinator will organize and hold outreach activities at demonstration sites throughout the season.

The project coordinator will:

  1. Organize and host two workshop for farmers held [one associated with Delaware Ag Week (state-wide event) and one in Georgetown, DE] to learn about soil health and the benefits of cover crops in winter 2016-2017.
  2. Work with farmers to establish three delayed termination on-farm demonstration sites (one in Fall 2016 and two in 2017).
  3. Organize and host field days – one in fall 2016 (or spring of 2017 depending on logistics) and at least two in the fall of 2017, at sites selected for delayed termination demonstration sites.
  4. Organize and host two farmer-to-farmer field walks at the farms of early adopter who are hosting the delayed termination demonstration sites used above (c.).
  5. Maintain signs and literature at the sites mentioned above (such as project goals, plot description, management tactics) that will allow for famers to revisit the sites on their own.
  6. Write three timely articles per year (or solicit these articles from other team members). The articles will be published in a range of current newsletters, such as the Weekly Crop Update (published weekly from April through September by UD Extension) and Crossroads (the quarterly newsletter by the Sussex Conservation District).



Cover crops have been widely adopted in Delaware, largely as a result of USDA-NRCS/Conservation Districts cost share programs.  Growers can receive up to $106.28/A based on financial assistance program, watershed, planting dates, planting method, and termination dates.  The objective of these programs is improved water quality, with the cover crops preventing the leaching and off-site movement of nutrients, and recycling them for the next grain crop.  The cover crops in the cost-share program can be terminated after March 15th, and most farmers will terminate their cover crop by early April.  However, this is before the rapid vegetative growth phase of the cover crops.  Delaware farmers are very familiar with cover crops and a large percentage of growers are taking advantage of cover crops.  The challenge for our team is to encourage farmers to allow their cover crops to grow later into the spring and realize the additional advantages that can be achieved with the additional growth.

The other challenge facing Delaware is the coordination of activities.  There has been a large effort from Cooperative Extension (both Delaware State University and University of Delaware), university researchers, USDA-NRCS, and conservation districts involving cover crops and soil health, but there has been little effort to link these projects for a coordinated outreach effort.

At a meeting on March 11, 2016, with five local farmers who have a keen interest in expanding their use of cover crops on their farms, there was discussion of what type of events/information/training was likely to have the most impact.  Field-based sessions were more likely to be successful, but the challenges for scheduling such events and trainings was also discussed.  The opportunity of holding more “farm-walks” has the potential to increase participation, but this further highlights the need for better coordination of agency/extension/research to maximize on-going projects.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Debbie Absher
  • Jayme Arthurs
  • John Clendaniel
  • Jennifer Nelson
  • Jay Baxter
  • Bill Cissel


Materials and methods:


An initial planning meeting was held in early October 2016.  Participants represented University of Delaware Extension and Research, Delaware State University Extension, Sussex County Conservation District, USDA-NRCS, as well as Jennifer Nelson.  We had a general discussion of intended cover crop projects for the fall 2016/spring 2017.  Sussex Conservation District is planning a spring outreach meeting on cover crops.  The group decided to use this meeting as a focal point for the meeting and explored ways to incorporate other research/demonstration/outreach to expand this meeting.

A second planning meeting is scheduled early in 2017 to finalize plans based on success of fall planting and cover crop establishment.  Furthermore, Delaware Ag Week will be held in mid-January and participants will be surveyed for specific topics they would like to see discussed at a spring meeting.


Fall 2016: initial meeting of interested individuals (team members, research, extension, agency, and farmers) to discuss ongoing projects and potential sites for spring demonstrations.  Two specific sites for these demonstrations and field days will be decided at this initial meeting.

Initial meeting was held and sites were discussed.  A second meeting is planned for early winter to finalize plans and sites based on successful establishment of the cover crops.

Fall 2016:  Coordinate with cooperating farmers, where the delayed termination demonstrations will be held and prepare for spring management.

Four farmers were approached to serve as potential sites for demonstration of delayed cover crop termination.  The sites are at various locations throughout Delaware to allow growers from different parts to observe the sites.  There was one site in New Castle County (northern portion of DE) one in Kent County (central portion of the state) and two in Sussex County (southern portion of the state).  The New Castle County site was seeded with winter wheat and crimson clover by air then planted with corn; Kent County and one location in Sussex were planted with cereal rye and then planted with no-till soybeans; and the other location in Sussex was seeded to crimson clover and planted to corn.

Winter 2016-2017:  Two workshops will be held for farmers, one associated with Delaware Ag Week (state-wide event) and one in Georgetown, DE to learn about soil health and the benefits of cover crops, organized by project coordinator.  This will be an indoor, classroom-style training.

Both workshops were held (January 12 and February 15), with the February 15 workshop held at Georgetown targeting farmers who were considering using cover crops for more than nutrient management.  Jen Nelson invited three growers to participate as part of a panel discussion, all who had just started to delay termination dates beyond mid-March.  In addition, she invited a local equipment dealer to discuss issues associated with machinery adjustments when large amounts of plant biomass are present at planting.


Spring 2017:  Delayed termination demonstrations are implemented at the location identified in the Fall 2016, and a field day will be held.  Spring is typically a difficult time to coordinate field days since farmers are busy with planting, so we will target only one spring field day for the initial year.   Early versus late termination timings, new equipment such as the Air Seeder and ZRX™ cover crop roller/crimper from Dawn Biologic, results from ongoing replicated field trials and other aspects of cover crops will be demonstrated and discussed. Project coordinator will be responsible for coordinating the demonstrations and promoting the field days.

Due to the locations of the sites (along busy roads with limited parking availability) a field day was held at the University of Delaware's Research and Education Center rather than at one of the farmer-cooperator sites.  Utilizing the UD farm allowed us to demonstrate a broader range of topics, since all the farmer sites only had cereal rye planted and all farmers planned on comparison of early and late termination timings.  However, as spring time approached, it was not possible to identify a date late enough in the spring in order to have demonstrations to observe and to accommodate farmers in late April who are busy planting corn.  So we decided to delay the field day until late summer (August 10) when the summer cash crops were approaching maturity and a chance to see the "end results" of the cover crop demonstrations.  Demonstrations included an air-seeder over standing corn and planting with ZRX row-cleaner attachments.  Other topics covered included cover crops for weed management, impact of cover crops on pests (insects and plant diseases), interseeding, and planting green (delaying cover crop termination until after planting).



Summer 2017:  Planning for fall projects, building upon the success of the spring sessions.  This will be more in-depth demonstrations since planning and implementing them will occur prior to planting fall cover crops. 

Based on surveys from the the March meeting and discussions at the August field days we identified main topics of interest to farmers to demonstrate for the next set of field days.  Choosing the right cover crop/mix had the most interest, followed by early establishment of cover crops, using cover crops for nutrient management, and cover crops for weed management.  In addition we have established plots to demonstrate planting green and issues with planting into large amounts of cover crop biomass.


Discussions with farmers to collaborate with field sites have provided us with a range of potential locations for on-farm demonstrations with farmer-cooperators.  However, most farmers did not have fields suitable to host a field day, were concerned about the liability of host field days on their farm, or were not willing to allow others to return to their sites throughout the summer to view the plots.


Farmer-cooperators will be used for demonstrations and allow us more experience with cover crops on commercial scale, but only one farmer site will be used for field days.  Two UD locations and one DE State University location have been established for field days and will accommodate farmers to return throughout the summer to view the plots.  A website has already been established to provide farmers and service providers background on the plots and allow to view the plots as their progress from seedling stage to mature cover crops to cash crop phase (www.DECCnetwork.com).


Fall 2017:  Cover crop demonstrations will be established at two sites.  The primary focus of these demonstrations will be delayed termination, but other educational demonstrations about cover crop techniques such as different species and seeding rates; comparison of seeding dates; comparison of seeding methods.  Experiences with the field day in the spring of 2017 will be considered in selecting the specific locations as well as the specific topics. The project coordinator will work with farmers as described earlier to establishment commercial-scale strip demonstrations to evaluate delayed termination, utility of the Air-Seeder, and cash crop planting strategies. 


Winter 2017-2018:  Project coordinator finalizes writing and/or editing of three Newsletter articles and releases them for publication.

An guide for Integrated Weed Management was written, with a chapter exclusively on management of cover crops for weed control.  This publication is available on the UD Weed Science Website.  Weekly Crop Update Newsletter had two articles written on cover crops for vegetable production and one on effective methods of terminating cover crops:


Spring 2018:  Two field-walk visits of the demonstration sites established the previous fall to view the cover crop development and discuss ideas and opportunities with spring management of the cover crops.  These will be conducted by the project coordinator. 

Two field walks were held, one at UD Research and Education Center in Sussex County and the second in New Castle County in early May of 2018 (see announcement http://extension.udel.edu/weeklycropupdate/?p=11640).


Fall 2018:  Follow up survey of the participants on their use of cover crops on their farms and their intentions for cover crop management in the spring of 2019.


Research results and discussion:

In an attempt to allow farmers and agency personnel to visit the demonstration sites and observe the development of the cover crops, we created a website (www.DECCnetwork.com).  The website was included a video on the purpose for the demonstration sites, encouraging farmers to visit the sites whenever they could.  Individual plots had signs and details and maps of the site were made available.  We create a QR code for those visiting the site to interact with the website.  We had a series of photographs of the cover crop taken at different stages of development to provide a visual of what the demonstration site looked like at different times of the year.  Jen Nelson created a podcast that included a discussion of the cover crop demonstration site (https://soundcloud.com/from-cloud-to-cab)


Unfortunately, we did not have anyone attend the field walk at the Sussex County site.  We had 12 individuals at the New Castle County site.  They were very interested in the cover crop species and how the twelve different species developed in the fall and in the spring.  The seeding ratio of legumes and cereal rye were also of great interest to this group.  We were unable to get any survey or feedback forms from the New Castle county group or anyone who may have done a self-guided tour of the plots.

Surveys and questionnaires at extension meetings show the majority of the respondents are using cover crops and termination is occurring two to three weeks prior to planting.  The most common reason for not planting cover crops is that the grain crops are harvested too late in the season.  The two most common concerns about terminating cover crops closer to planting are poor stands due to too much biomass and issues with slugs. Soil health is the primary reason for planting cover crops.


Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

15 Consultations
4 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
3 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Website: http://www.deccnetwork.com/

Participation Summary:

160 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Two workshops were held in early 2017, and a field day was held in August 2017. Two field walks were offered in May 2018.

Learning Outcomes

70 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Feb 15 Workshop participants were asked how likely they are to use information learned (on a 0 to 5 scale)
Fine tune planters: 4.05
Manage slugs: 4.05
Farmer panel: 4.33
Soil Health and Weed Management: 4.45

For August 10
Field Research Tour and Demo: 4.35
Cover Crop Rates and Planting Method: 4.44
General: 4.75

Project Outcomes

4 Grants applied for that built upon this project
3 Grants received that built upon this project
$560,000.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
10 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:


It is very difficult to assess the impact of this project in quantitative terms.  We could not get surveys or evaluations from farmers for events directly sponsored by this project.  However, information gained from this project was presented at numerous extension presentations, included as preliminary data for other grants, served as the background for numerous recommendations on cover crop management, and provided background for various newsletter articles.  As an observation many fields in the spring of 2018 were terminated later than usual which increased cover crop biomass and enhanced the benefits of cover crops.  Furthermore, there have been many more inquiries regarding cover crop management in the past 6 months than there has been previously.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

The information and experience obtain from this project were invaluable.  They have led to other research endeavors.  The development of a website and photo-bank of images of the demonstration site will also be useful to anyone considering cover crops in the region.  The challenge for our outreach is that cover crops are one of the top subjects for research and extension.  Farmers have no shortage of meetings, field days or publications to access to learn more about cover crops.  We did partner with soil conservation district and NRCS to maximize our efforts and expand the connectivity between the various groups working on cover crops.  But I am at a loss for how we could have engaged more people in our field walks and to participate in our assessment of the project.

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.