Cotton is grown on over 11.6 million acres in the Southeastern USA each year. But less than 25% of this cotton is grown using conservation tillage. Improvements in adoption have been hard to achieve for a number of reasons. This project’s aim was to improve a system for cotton production and to increase producer understanding of sustainable production practices including conservation tillage and cover crops. In on-farm studies we investigated effects of cover crops in conservation tillage cotton production systems on crop production. Insect dynamics, soil microarthropods and plant parasitic nematodes were used to evaluate impacts of cover crop management. Companion studies on station and in the greenhouse were used to identify cover crops with the most potential to produce biomass, enhance biological diversity and reduce threats of plant parasitic nematodes. Our results showed a positive impact of a blend of legumes (balansa clover, crimson clover, and hairy vetch) plus rye on above and below ground biological populations. Addition of cover crops increased soil biological diversity and microbial activity and in one year reduced the number of pesticide applications needed to control cotton insect pests. Plant parasitic nematode populations were supported by some of the cover crops in our system and trials with other cover crops indicated that alternative cover crops would be better choices where plant parasitic nematode populations exist. Through partnerships with the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance, Seven Rivers RC&D, and Sunbelt Farm Expo we provided information to several thousand farmers on use of cover crops in conservation tillage systems and impacts cover crops can have on nutrients, soil C, pest insects, nematodes and crop yields. Research results were presented at on-farm field days, conservation tillage meetings, the Sun Belt Agricultural Exposition, professional scientific society meetings and in scientific and nonscientific publications. Our outreach efforts were effective and successful in promoting sustainable farming practices in the Southeast.
Our first objective was to investigate how cover crop management might be used to enhance insect habitat (to increase the number of beneficial insects present) and how different cover crops influence interactions among aboveground insects (predator/prey relationships). We also evaluated how these practices influenced soil biology and other soil quality indicators.
Our second objective was to educate producers about environmental and economic benefits of soil quality in sustainable agriculture systems and expand the network of area producers who provide leadership for further adoption and dissemination of information on sustainable production practices.