Institutionalizing Cover Crop Research and Education in the Southeast

Final report for SC14-001

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2015: $129,712.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. S. Chris Reberg-Horton
North Carolina State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

This proposal bought together multiple states and a diversity of institutions to host a comprehensive two day cover crop conference for our region.  One day of the conference was devoted to identifying priorities in research and extension and coordinating the response across the diverse institutions involved.  Workshops were organized to utilize the diversity of collaborators involved.  In addition to the invited speakers, interdisciplinary teams were assigned to many sessions to foster dialogue.  The second day was reserved for demonstrations of new technologies and to share the best field demonstrations determined by a panel that solicited entries from our entire region.  The conference also served to launch the Southern Cover Crops Council which will provide ongoing support to SARE and other agencies in guiding cover crop research, education and outreach programs.  The conference organized cover crop information from many of the workshops and field demonstrations into factsheets that were made available through SSARE for farmers and advisors. Videos from the field demonstrations are also available on the SSARE website.

Project Objectives:
  1. Develop an interdisciplinary team across the region to host a conference tasked with (a) summarizing what is known in various sub-regions, (b) identifying uncertainties about cover crop benefits and management, and (c) strategizing a path forward to build a successful network for research, education, and technology transfer throughout the southeastern region.
  2. Explore educational approaches and tools that have the potential to drive greater adoption of single and multi-species cover crops in our region.
  3. Establish a Southern Cover Crop Council for our region that will institutionalize the partnerships brought together for the conference and continue providing coordination after the term of the grant is over.
Introduction:

In the Southeast, development of conservation agricultural systems with excessive winter precipitation almost demands the simultaneous deployment of conservation tillage and cover cropping.  Research in the region has repeatedly demonstrated the value of combining winter cover crops with no tillage for successful soil organic carbon sequestration and soil health development (Franzluebbers, 2010).  Roller-crimper technology has advanced considerably over the past decade to be more effective in timing of cover crop kill with or without herbicide assistance (Kornecki et al., 2009).  Cover crops have key roles to play in controlling weeds and persistent pathogens in specialty crops (Treadwell et al., 2007; 2012; Butler et al., 2012b).  Legume cover crops are essential in supplying N to organic and conventional farming systems (Parr et al., 2011).  Cover crops can be excellent sources of forage to increase farm productivity and economic resilience if managed to avoid soil degradation (Franzluebbers and Stuedemann, 2007; Schomberg et al., 2014)

These efforts have led to successes; small cadres of conservation tillage farmers and organic farmers are now dedicated users of cover crops.  Farmer leaders such as Lamar Black in northeastern Georgia (Franzluebbers, 2011), Barry Martin in southeastern Georgia (Swisher Sweets/SunBelt AgExpo Farmer of the Year 2012) and Ben Burkett  in southern Mississippi gained widespread attention for their expertise in cover crop management.  Even with these successes, the number of acres being cover cropped is still relative low. The barriers to adoption are an open question with both technical and educational constraints varying by region and cropping system. 

To achieve targeted cover crop adoption on the majority of cropland in the region, an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional assessment is needed.  We need to find out where the barriers are, what the state of the science is, and how our research, education, and technology transfer institutions can better coordinate a response. Standard educational programs may not be sufficient to deal with this complexity.  Learning groups, in which educators and farmers co-learn strategies for adapting cover crops to this dynamic environment, are needed.

Much of the past research and extension in the region was conducted with single-species cover crops (Adams et al., 1970; Smith et al., 1987; Wagger, 1989; Dabney, 1998; Daniel et al., 1999), but a new emphasis on multi-species cover crops by USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service has piqued the interest of producers, extension personnel, and researchers.  Recent Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) focused on multi-species cover crops in North Carolina (annual cover crops in row-cropping systems – North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation; annual and perennial cover crops in beef grazing systems – North Carolina State University and University of Georgia) will allow us opportunities to explore perceptions, limitations, and potentials on several farms in the region.  Other CIG programs on cover crops in the southeastern USA offer opportunities to gain valuable experiences and input for our efforts, including:

  • F. Smith Foundation – Delta F.A.R.M. – “Mississippi’s Soil Health Initiative: Fostering Awareness, Belief and Understanding through Local Experience and Evaluation”
  • National Association of Conservation Districts – “Soil Health Advocates – Promoting and Documenting the Benefits of Soil Health Management”
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – “Quantifying Soil Health: Measuring the Impacts of Tillage and Cover Crop Practices on Nutrient Retention and Soil Physical, Biological and Chemical Properties”
  • University of Tennessee – “Long-term impacts of cover crops, crop rotations, and conservation tillage systems on soil health, nutrient cycling, soil water availability, and crop productivity”
  • University of Tennessee – “Energy conservation for organic high tunnel production through rain water utilization, ventilation management, mulches and cover crops”
  • Virginia NRCS – “Feasibility of Multi-species Cover Crops in Central Virginia Cropping Systems to Affect Soil Quality”
  • Virginia NRCS – “Improving soil health and crop productivity by utilizing diverse and high-residue cover crops in Virginia”

The regional cover crop conference will leverage the benefits of these grant investments by extending lessons learned to other states.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

 

Outreach and Publications

The planning for this conference involved nine Southern states with advisory groups within each state comprised of farmers, extension, researchers, and government agencies.  The nine states’ representatives to the conference were considered the conference planning committee.  The conference took place on July 18-19, 2016 to accommodate the huge diversity of crops and cover crops in our region as well as the small window of lower activity for most farmers. 

The conference planning committee was organized into five sub-committees, with 27 participating committee members: Workshops, Field Demonstrations, Outputs, Evaluation, and Logistics.  The Workshops committee organized 11 workshop topics, selected and invited speakers to address issues within those topics, and organized the workshops schedule.  The Field Demonstration committee had a call for proposals for field demonstrations, selected appropriate proposals to address the wide crop diversity and geophysical diversity of the Southern region and the most relevant cover crop research and techniques, while ensuring the demonstration had a reasonable chance of success in the climate and space of the conference location.  The Outputs committee organized the conference booklet, decided on appropriate conference outputs, organized factsheet templates, videographer, and photographer, and peer reviewed the factsheets.  The Evaluation committee conducted a pre-conference evaluation, evaluations during the conference (at individual workshops and field demonstrations), and post-conference evaluations.  The Logistics committee focused on organizing the logistics of implementing a two-day conference for 350 participants at two locations.  The Logistics committee also set up the first meeting of the Southern Cover Crop Council, held directly after the field demonstration portion of the conference.

The collaborators for this conference each have advisory groups in their respective states who helped advise on the  conference plan and establish the structure of the cover crop council*.  It was important to include members that represent everything from organic specialty crops to conventional field crops with multiple size farms in each category.  Sessions at the conference catered to these different niches, but also larger issues which cut across different types of farms.

*Sample of advisory committees:

NC Advisory Committee:

  • Billy Carter, Carter Farms, Eagle Springs, NC
  • Ben Haines, Looking Back Farm, Tyner, NC
  • George Teague, organic dairy farm, Elon, NC
  • Roland McReynolds, Executive Director, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
  • Kelli Dale, Rural Advancement Foundation International, RAFI-USA
  • Taylor Williams, Extension Agent, Moore County
  • Orpha Gene Watson, organic farmer, Whitakers, NC
  • Mary Wilks, Crop Advisor, Rocky Mount, NC

Georgia Advisory Committee

  • Peyton Sapp, Burke County Extension Coordinator
  • Alton Walker, Alton Walker Farms, Conservation Tillage Row Crop Farmer, Burke County GA
  • Rick Reed, Deep South Growers, Conventional Tobacco and Vegetable Farmer, Douglas, GA
  • Tony Gobert, Learn-In Farm, Urban Agriculture Program, Gwinnet Technical College
  • Daniel Parson, Farmer/Educator, Oxford College Farm, Certified Organic Farmer, Oxford, GA
  • Philip Brown, Grazing Lands Specialist, NRCS State Office, Athens, GA
  • Relinda Walker, Walker Farms, Certified Organic Farmer, Screven County, GA
  • Wade Hutchinson, Spalding County Extension Coordinator

Tennessee Advisory Committee:

  • David Butler, Organic Cropping Systems, Research and Teaching
  • Don Tyler, No-till cropping systems, Research and Extension
  • Forbes Walker, Extension Environmental Soils Specialist
  • Annette Wszelaki, Extension Vegetable Crop Specialist
  • Carl Sams, Horticultural Crop Physiology, Research and Teaching
  • Dave Lockwood, Extension Fruit Crop Specialist
  • Tyson Raper, Extension Cotton and Small Grains Specialist
  • Renata Nave, Forage Systems and Management, Research
  • Larry Steckel, Extension Row Crop Weed Specialist
  • Mike Buschermohle, Extension Precision Agriculture Specialist
  • Jim and Julie Vaughn, Rocky Glade Farm, vegetables and grass-fed beef & lamb

Virginia Advisory Committee:

  • Mark Reiter, Soils and Nutrient Management Specialist, Painter, VA
  • Chris Lawrence, USDA-NRCS State Agronomist, Richmond, VA
  • Wade Thomason, Small Grains Specialist, Blacksburg, VA
  • Eric Bendfeldt, Community Viability Specialist, Harrisonburg, VA
  • John Holland, Vegetable and Grain Farmer, New Church, VA
  • Steve Rideout, Plant Pathologist, Painter, VA
  • Stuart Lane, Grain Farmer, Ladysmith, VA
  • Daniel Austin, Dairy and Grain Farmer, Cover Crop Seed Supplier, Ferrum, VA
Outcomes and impacts:

The planning for this conference involved nine Southern states with advisory groups within each state comprised of farmers, extension, researchers, and government agencies.  The nine states’ representatives to the conference were considered the conference planning committee.  The conference took place on July 18-19, 2016 to accommodate the huge diversity of crops and cover crops in our region as well as the small window of lower activity for most farmers. 

The conference planning committee was organized into five sub-committees, with 27 participating committee members: Workshops, Field Demonstrations, Outputs, Evaluation, and Logistics.  The Workshops committee organized 11 workshop topics, selected and invited speakers to address issues within those topics, and organized the workshops schedule.  The Field Demonstration committee had a call for proposals for field demonstrations, selected appropriate proposals to address the wide crop diversity and geophysical diversity of the Southern region and the most relevant cover crop research and techniques, while ensuring the demonstration had a reasonable chance of success in the climate and space of the conference location.  The Outputs committee organized the conference booklet, decided on appropriate conference outputs, organized factsheet templates, videographer, and photographer, and peer reviewed the factsheets.  The Evaluation committee conducted a pre-conference evaluation, evaluations during the conference (at individual workshops and field demonstrations), and post-conference evaluations.  The Logistics committee focused on organizing the logistics of implementing a two-day conference for 350 participants at two locations.  The Logistics committee also set up the first meeting of the Southern Cover Crop Council, held directly after the field demonstration portion of the conference.

The collaborators for this conference each have advisory groups in their respective states who helped advise on the  conference plan and establish the structure of the cover crop council*.  It was important to include members that represent everything from organic specialty crops to conventional field crops with multiple size farms in each category.  Sessions at the conference catered to these different niches, but also larger issues which cut across different types of farms.

*Sample of advisory committees:

NC Advisory Committee:

  • Billy Carter, Carter Farms, Eagle Springs, NC
  • Ben Haines, Looking Back Farm, Tyner, NC
  • George Teague, organic dairy farm, Elon, NC
  • Roland McReynolds, Executive Director, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
  • Kelli Dale, Rural Advancement Foundation International, RAFI-USA
  • Taylor Williams, Extension Agent, Moore County
  • Orpha Gene Watson, organic farmer, Whitakers, NC
  • Mary Wilks, Crop Advisor, Rocky Mount, NC

Georgia Advisory Committee

  • Peyton Sapp, Burke County Extension Coordinator
  • Alton Walker, Alton Walker Farms, Conservation Tillage Row Crop Farmer, Burke County GA
  • Rick Reed, Deep South Growers, Conventional Tobacco and Vegetable Farmer, Douglas, GA
  • Tony Gobert, Learn-In Farm, Urban Agriculture Program, Gwinnet Technical College
  • Daniel Parson, Farmer/Educator, Oxford College Farm, Certified Organic Farmer, Oxford, GA
  • Philip Brown, Grazing Lands Specialist, NRCS State Office, Athens, GA
  • Relinda Walker, Walker Farms, Certified Organic Farmer, Screven County, GA
  • Wade Hutchinson, Spalding County Extension Coordinator

Tennessee Advisory Committee:

  • David Butler, Organic Cropping Systems, Research and Teaching
  • Don Tyler, No-till cropping systems, Research and Extension
  • Forbes Walker, Extension Environmental Soils Specialist
  • Annette Wszelaki, Extension Vegetable Crop Specialist
  • Carl Sams, Horticultural Crop Physiology, Research and Teaching
  • Dave Lockwood, Extension Fruit Crop Specialist
  • Tyson Raper, Extension Cotton and Small Grains Specialist
  • Renata Nave, Forage Systems and Management, Research
  • Larry Steckel, Extension Row Crop Weed Specialist
  • Mike Buschermohle, Extension Precision Agriculture Specialist
  • Jim and Julie Vaughn, Rocky Glade Farm, vegetables and grass-fed beef & lamb

Virginia Advisory Committee:

  • Mark Reiter, Soils and Nutrient Management Specialist, Painter, VA
  • Chris Lawrence, USDA-NRCS State Agronomist, Richmond, VA
  • Wade Thomason, Small Grains Specialist, Blacksburg, VA
  • Eric Bendfeldt, Community Viability Specialist, Harrisonburg, VA
  • John Holland, Vegetable and Grain Farmer, New Church, VA
  • Steve Rideout, Plant Pathologist, Painter, VA
  • Stuart Lane, Grain Farmer, Ladysmith, VA
  • Daniel Austin, Dairy and Grain Farmer, Cover Crop Seed Supplier, Ferrum, VA

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The Southern Cover Crop Conference hosted 350 scientists, farmers, farm and natural resource advisors, government officials, and industry personnel for the first day of workshops, and over 400 for the second date of demonstrations.  The first day of workshops, eleven cover crop topic tracks with one to two workshops per track covered a range of subjects from cover crop establishment, to soil biology, to fertility – a total of 18 unique workshops.  Workshops included both the latest technical information and the educational approaches that have proven most effective.  Eleven demonstrations chosen by our organizing panel were set up by CEFS staff ahead of the conference including the planting of cover crops and application of treatments. The demonstrations were visited on the second day of the conference.  Many demonstrations had hands-on participation and live equipment demonstrations. 

To see the conference booklet with all workshops, demonstrations, leaders and collaborators:  Southern-Cover-Crop-Conference-Program-draft-v2

Conference proceedings were published on-line and are available to the public at: http://www.southernsare.org/Events/Southern-Cover-Crop-Conference

Conference leaders wrote 19 factsheets (listed below) based on workshops or field demonstrations.  The factsheets were peer reviewed before publication, and are available as pdf downloads on the SSARE site.   The factsheets have been viewed, individually, between 11 and 53 times and have been downloaded between 5 and 14 times.  Six videos from the field demonstrations show short clips of equipment and ideas from the demonstrations.  These are also available online and on YouTube.  On YouTube, they have had between 130 and 180 views since September 2016, with one video (Mechanical Termination of Cover Crops) receiving approximately 459 views.  The factsheets and videos have been featured in at least two websites:  VA Cooperative Extension and Center for Environmental Farming Systems blog.

List of peer-reviewed factsheets proceeding from the Southern Cover Crop Conference.

The conference was also a jumping off point for a planning process to establish a permanent cover council akin to the successful Midwest Cover Crop Council.  The first Southern Cover Crop Council meeting was held directly after the field demonstration portion of the conference, and initial steps were taken at that time for form a formal council.  The council and its subcommittees have met numerous times since July 2016, and held a meeting at University of Georgia in January with a mediator to discuss goals and governance structure.  The council convenes again in May and July 2017 to formalize establishment and prioritize research and education efforts. 

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

  • 19 peer reviewed factsheets on cover crop production, management and education in the Southeast; for use by farmers, Extension, and other stakeholders for educational purposes.
  • 6 professional videos of field demonstrations at the conference to show aspects of cover crop management and production.
  • Formation of Southern Cover Crop Council which will impact education, outreach, and research on cover crops in the Southern region.
  • Outreach to approximately 400 farmers, Extension, NRCS, reseachers, and other ag advisors from all states and territories of the Southern SARE region at the Southern Cover Crop Conference.  These participants will use information they learned at the conference to educate and implement cover crop management in their home state/territory.
  • The Southern Cover Crop Conference will also help direct cover crop research and education for the future in the Southern region.

 

Future Recommendations

The Southern Cover Crop Council will likely be the leader of future recommendations for research, outreach, and education on cover crops in the Southern US.  This Conference generated a lot of interest and enthusiasm around cover crops, so a regional conference on cover crops, taking place every other year, may be beneficial to capitalize on the energy from this Conference and the formation of the Council.

Support should be given to the Southern Cover Crop Council to continue their work.

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.