Farmers’ Evaluation of Cover Crop Effects on Sandy Soils in the Suwannee River Basin in North Florida

Final report for OS17-110

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2017: $14,744.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: University of Florida
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Kevin Athearn
University of Florida
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

Despite numerous benefits described in the literature (CTIC 2016, SARE 2016, USDA 2014), the rate of Florida cover crop adoption is among the lowest in the nation- around 2.6% of total farms or 1.4% of managed acres (NASS 2012).  Low cover crop adoption rates inherently jeopardize the sustainability of agriculture in the area through lost opportunity for conservation and possibly less economic resilience. Understanding the barriers to adoption, current knowledge level of soil health, and comparative economics on the feasibility of cover crops in our region through the use of 12 on-farm demonstrations will allow us to document farmer’s perspectives on cover crops. Taking before and after soil health data for comparison will show where improvements can be made in our sandy Florida soils. Hosting field days and discussions, creating diverse educational resources, and testing diverse species blends and production methods will afford us greater understanding and direction for cover crop recommendations.  Participation of farmers in the process of discovering barriers and opportunities for understanding will lead to greater ownership of the research, which will accelerate adoption on more acres while stewarding the use of natural resources.

 

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Collaborate with farmers to better understand their challenges and logistics of adoption

Objective 2: Test cover crops on-farm using measurements specific to their desired outcome

Objective 3: Create outreach materials and venues for sharing specifics on cover crop economics, planting, and benefit.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Andy Jackson
  • Stan Posey
  • Raymond Ward
  • Sunny Liao
  • Joel Love (Educator)
  • Dr. Danielle Treadwell (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

To recruit and engage farmers in this project, we employed a “Discovery Farms” approach (UW 2016) where we already had identified a few farmers (4) planting cover crops and asked their input on evaluating Best Management Practices (BMPs) that would impact productivity and environmental issues (including water quality). Most Florida farmers have been aware of EPA regulations coming down to the State level, but are unsure what BMPs have the most impact. Another 8 farmers were recruited from the original group who have shown interest in cover crops. 

To better understand North Florida farmers’ perceptions and uses for cover crops, as well as barriers to adoption, we conducted six semi-structured interviews and two surveys with combined responses from 47 farmers. We also conducted a focus group with four growers to collect information on the economics of cover cropping. To engage farmers in using cover crops and testing soil health, we supported the planting of cover crops on 12 farms and arranged testing of various soil health indicators on those farms. This work, conducted in 2017 through 2019, involved discussions with the farmers about the cover crop mix most appropriate for their rotation and goals, as well as providing seeds and taking soil tests before and after the cover crop. 

Research results and discussion:

The 6 semi-structured interviews with North Florida farmers in 2017 provided some initial insights into perceptions about cover crops. Participating farmers included three agronomic/row crop growers (peanut, corn, soybean, cotton, wheat); one organic dairy; and two diversified vegetable, animal, and value-added farmers. Five of the six farmers had some experience with cover crops, including rye, oats, triticale, ryegrass, Austrian winter pea, sunn hemp, and cowpea. Cover crops are used as an alternative to fallow in between cash crops. Perceived benefits mentioned by the farmers included…

  • better cash crop yields (although one grower mentioned stunting effects after rye),
  • holding residual nitrogen,
  • less need to purchase fertilizers and chemicals,
  • wind erosion control,
  • nematode control,
  • less disease and insect pressure,
  • weed control,
  • improved water holding and organic matter, and
  • increased diversity and life in the soil.

The farmers mentioned challenges and barriers for cover crops, including…

  • labor and time needed to plant them while getting the cash crop (e.g., peanuts or soybeans) out,
  • machinery needed,
  • not knowing much about specific species and their management,
  • unclear benefits, and
  • difficulty getting seed in Florida.

Information on crop prices, specific cover crop species, and understanding the financial benefits would help with their management decisions. The farmers mentioned various preferred sources of information, including…

  • consultants
  • extension publications
  • other farmers
  • field days
  • organic associations
  • the Internet
  • videos, and
  • own experimentation.

Although extension field days and publications appear effective at reaching some farmers, consultants are another important source of advice on cropping practices.

A clicker survey completed by 17 farmers who attended the Cover Crops & Soil Health Field Day in March 2018 (Live Oak, FL) provided quantitative information on their perceptions of cover crops. All but two of the farmers had grown cover crops previously. The highest level of interest was in winter/cold season cover crops (76% very interested), followed by cover crops that can be grazed (65%), and summer/warm season cover crops (53%). Nutrient management was the primary benefit identified by the majority (65%) of farmers. Water/moisture management was the secondary benefit identified by most (59%) of the farmers. The top five barriers to cover cropping identified by the farmers were the equipment needed (71%) agreed or strongly agreed), the annual cost (64%), the timing in relation to cash crop harvest (47%), the labor involved (41%), and lack of knowledge about cover crops (36%). Seventy-six percent agreed or strongly agreed that cover crops are likely to make their farm more profitable. The remaining 24% said they were neutral or do not know whether they would affect farm profitability. Seventy-six percent also agreed or strongly agreed that cover crops decrease risks for their farm. The remaining 24% said that either cover crops do not affect overall risk or that they do not know.  

A paper survey completed by 30 farmers and 27 others at the Cover Crops & Soil Health Field Day in February 2019 (Monticello, FL) documented additional information on cover crop perceptions and practices. Twenty-eight percent of farmer respondents had been growing cover crops for 10 or more years, whereas 17% had never grown a cover crop. A majority of respondents believed that lack of knowledge (58%), equipment (54%), and annual costs (53%) were serious or moderate problems for cover crop adoption. Twelve of the respondents had attended the cover crop workshop in 2018. A few mentioned changes they had made since that workshop, including the type of oats they planted, starting to use cover crops, taking soil health samples, and an increased desire to learn. Ninety-five percent of respondents indicated plans to make management or practice changes because of the information shared at the workshop.

A focus group with four farmers in March 2019 was used to ground truth cover crop budgets that are in progress for publication. The participating farmers provided feedback on equipment, seeding rates, cover crop management activities, and costs. The sample budgets have been adjusted based on their feedback. For common fall-winter cover crops that are not grazed or used for seed production, sample cost estimates are $69 to $78 per acre. For common summer-fall cover crops that are not grazed or used for seed production, sample cost estimates are $80 to $88 per acre. These annual operating cost estimates include seeds, inoculant, fertilizer, herbicide, and machinery operation, but not irrigation. Irrigation by center pivot adds an estimated $7 per acre-inch. Maintaining cover crops for grazing or seed production would increase the costs. The cost estimates do not include machinery ownership. A no-till drill is the main piece of equipment needed, but not already owned or leased by most North Florida farmers. A roller crimper and seed tender could also be helpful for cover cropping. Sample prices for these implements are listed in the budget document.

On-farm cover crop demonstrations were conducted on 12 farms (600 acres) with support from this grant and two other grants. The demonstrations involved discussions with the farmers about the cover crop mix most appropriate for their rotation and goals, as well as providing seeds and taking soil health tests. Soil health test samples were taken on each farm in fall 2017 before planting a cover crop and spring 2018 after cover crop termination. Additional samples were taken in winter 2018-2019. The soil samples were analyzed by Ward Laboratories using Haney soil health analysis to measure organic matter, soil respiration, microbially active carbon, a soil health calculation, and several other indicators. Because the demonstrations and soil testing were not set up as controlled experiments, it is not appropriate to draw scientific conclusions about changes in these indicators. The demonstrations and soil testing have led to greater awareness among farmers in the region.

Participation Summary
35 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

48 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
12 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

35 Farmers
48 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

A Cover Crops and Soil Health Field Day was held in Live Oak, Florida, in March 2018. Speakers included Dr. Ray Ward (President of Ward Laboratories) and University of Florida faculty. The program was attended by 40 people (17 farmers and 23 others). We presented at the Extension Professional Associations of Florida annual conference in August 2018, summarizing the first year of the project. In February 2019 we held a Cover Crops and Soil Health Field Day in Monticello, Florida. The field day included presentations by a grower and University of Florida faculty, and a visit to one of the on-farm demonstration sites. Sixty-six people attended the field day, and 57 of them completed a survey on cover crop practices and perspectives. Visits by project coordinators and cooperators to 12 participating farms, discussions and demonstrations of cover cropping on those farms, and soil health analysis also served an important educational outreach function. Three extension publications are in progress that will draw from information learned through this project. Additional outreach events (field days) are scheduled for December 2019 and February 2020 to further educate Suwannee Valley growers and stakeholders on cover crops.

 

Learning Outcomes

28 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • Cover crop species

  • Soil health

  • Cover crop fertility

  • Timing of planting

  • Cover crop costs

Project Outcomes

12 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
4 Grants received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Working with 12 growers on-farm and surveying field day participants allowed us to better understand their challenges and needs, as well as articulate future research questions based on what farmers are doing and saying. Soil health testing and review of results was conducted on all 12 farms.

12 farmers changed or adopted a practice.

An important outcome is that participating farmers have learned about Haney soil health analysis and have used it on their farms. We believe this new awareness will lead to greater consideration of soil health in farmer decision making.

Information and outreach materials were shared with 83 participants at field days.

28 farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of this project.

42 participants at the second field day reported plans to make management or practice changes on farms because of information presented.

Three UF/IFAS Extension publications drawing on this project are in progress and will be published on the UF EDIS website:

  1. A previous publication, Transitioning from Conventional to Organic Farming Using Conservation Tillage, SS-AGR-11, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is being revised and updated.
  2. A new publication, Farmer Tools to Assess Soil Health, is in progress.
  3. A new publication, Cover Crop Costs and Perceived Benefits for North Florida Row Crop Growers, is in progress.

Four grants have been received that build upon this project:

  1. Suwannee County Conservation District (SCCD), 2017:  $15,000
  2. Stetson Sustainable Farming Fund (SSFF), 2018:  $50,000
  3. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), 2018-2019:  $100,000
  4. Southern SARE, 2018-2020 (LS18-302, Educational Materials for Cover Crop Adoption and Use in the Subtropics and Tropics):  $46,999

Joel Love, project cooperator and BMP education specialist, has led grant-writing and oversight of cover crop projects funded by SCCD, SSFF, and FDACS, and continues to visit with participating farms to discuss cover cropping and soil health. Dr. Danielle Treadwell, project cooperator and associate professor, is PI on the Southern SARE grant, LS18-302, and continues research and education on cover cropping in Florida.

Carlene Chase and Danielle Treadwell, University of Florida faculty, are state representatives on the Southern Cover Crops Council and have been sharing information from this project with other states.

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.