Educating Agricultural Professionals and Extension Educators in Developing Sustainable and Resilient Cropping Systems through Integration of Cover Crops

2013 Annual Report for ENC12-132

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2012: $59,296.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Ajay Nair
Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University

Educating Agricultural Professionals and Extension Educators in Developing Sustainable and Resilient Cropping Systems through Integration of Cover Crops


In Iowa and adjacent north-central states majority of cover crop work has been conducted in corn and soybean farming systems. Fruit and vegetable cropping systems are still lagging in efficiently integrating cover crops as a sustainable crop rotation strategy. With growing demand for sustainably grown produce, growers require information on types of cover crops, their growth stages, management techniques, and potential challenges associated with their use. Growers need extension specialists and agricultural educators with knowledge and skills to assist them in implementing a sustainable farm plan integrating cover crops. This project focuses on training agricultural professionals on concepts and application of cover crops in fruit and vegetable production systems.  The project will organize statewide cover crop training workshops and field days for Commercial Horticulture Field Specialists, County Horticulturists, and members of organizations such as Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, Regional Food Systems Working Group, Iowa Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association and Practical Farmers of Iowa. Workshops speakers would include researchers, farmers and ranchers who have successfully incorporated cover crops in their production systems. The project will strengthen the scope of professional development activity by organizing trips to two regional fruit & vegetable conferences that include sessions on cover cropping and agricultural sustainability.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The overall objective this project is to provide a professional development and educational forum on cover crops that help create sustainable fruit and vegetable production systems. The intended audiences for the project include extension personnel from Iowa State University, University of Missouri, Lincoln University, Iowa State University Research & Demonstration Farm superintendents, county extension personnel, government agency staff, leaders of grower organizations, and staff from Natural Resource Conservation Service. Core objectives of the project are to:

  •      Highlight the importance of cover crops in fruit and vegetable production systems
  •      Provide a platform to share resources, knowledge, and expertise in the area of cover cropping in fruit and vegetable production
  •      Promote hands-on learning opportunity to better understand cover cropping practices
  •      Connect agricultural educators to professionals in the area of sustainable fruit and vegetable production
  •      Develop a brief and concise extension bulletin that can be interpreted and used by extension staff, agricultural professionals, and the end client (fruit and vegetable growers)
  •      As a long term strategy, facilitate integration of cover crops into fruit and vegetable production systems to create diverse and resilient cropping systems


The overarching goal of this project was to educate growers, extension personnel, university faculty and staff, graduate students, industry groups, and grower organizations about the benefits and importance of cover crops in specialty crop production. To accomplish this goal we organized a series of cover crop workshops and field days, on-farm demonstration trial, and a research experiment focusing on the integration of summer cover crops in fall lettuce production. Below are details of various activities undertaken:

Cover Crop Workhshops
Given the growing interest in cover crops throughout the state, we organized four cover crop workshops across Iowa. The first workshop was organized in Mason City, IA which was attended by 35 people. Audience included commercial horticulture field extension specialists, county extension horticulturists, regional food systems working group members, local food organizations, Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and Practical Farmers of Iowa board members, and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and NRCS personnel. Topics covered during the six hour workshop included cover crop types, planting, management, benefits, and issues associated with cover cropping in fruit and vegetable cropping systems. Workshops speakers highlighted advantages of cover crops in sustainable crop rotations and their ability to improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion, increase fertility, and manage pest populations. Thirteen types of cover crops grown in 3 ft by 1.5 ft flats were also exhibited during the workshop for participants to evaluate the morphology, structure, and growth characteristics of cover crops. Similar cover crop workshops were organized in Lewis, IA, Ames, IA, and Fruitland, IA and a total of 15, 30, and 25 participants attended, respectively. 

Cover Crop Field Days
Cover crop plots were set up at Armstrong Research Station, Lewis, IA, Horticulture Research Station, Ames, IA, and Muscatine Island Research Farm (MIRF), Fruitland, IA. Cover crop field plots (20ft x 20ft) were established early summer. Cover crop species included crops from families such as Poacea, Fabaceae, and Brassicaeae. Field days provided practical recommendations for planting and managing cover crops in Iowa. Participants got an opportunity to observe cover crops in the field, dig them out to study root structure, and learn about crop morphology and growth. This exercise facilitated better understanding of cover crops among field day participants. The Field Day at MIRF (10/11/2013) was attended by 20 people including agriculture leaders from the Amish community. Special arrangements were made to bring Amish growers to the Field Day. Due to the interest among Amish growers in cover crops, a future cover crop workshop was planned for Amish growers and community leaders, to take place in their area in Kalona, IA. The Field Day organized at the Horticulture Research Station, Ames, IA (10/04/2013)  provided an opportunity for extension personnel, Farm Research Staff, Farm Managers, and faculty and staff from Missouri Extension and Lincoln University to visit cover crop research and demonstration plots at Iowa State University.

Professional Development
Two educational /professional development trips for extension staff, agricultural educators, and leaders from grower organizations were organized to attend two regional fruit and vegetable conferences [Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo (GLEXPO) and Great Plains Growers Conference, Missouri]. The Great Plains Growers Conference, Missouri (10-12 January, 2013) had educational tracks that covered several topics such as advanced soil management, nutrient management in fruit and vegetable production, and marketing of fruit and vegetables. The GLEXPO (9-12 December, 2013) visit included representatives from Practical Farmers of Iowa leaders (Susan Jutz, Kate Edwards, Tony Thomson) and Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (Greg Rinehart). Commercial Horticulture Field Extension agent, Joe Hannan, also joined the educational trip. We strongly believe that extension personnel and agricultural professionals should be kept abreast with the latest developments and advancements in cover crop research and technology and the GLEXPO visit was an excellent step in that direction.

Cover crop videos
As part of field days, three cover crop videos were created which highlighted the importance of short duration summer cover crops that could be incorporated in vegetable cropping systems. These videos, as of date, have been viewed 80 viewers. Cover crop video links provided below:

Summer Cover Crop Research
A summer cover crop research experiment was set up in Ames, IA focusing on effects of summer cover crop on fall butterhead lettuce (cultivar Nancy) production. Treatments tested included buckwheat, cowpea, sorghum sudangrass, and no-cover crop. Cover crops provided excellent weed control and generated large amount of biomass (Sorghum Sudangrass – 4,739 lb/A; Cowpea – 1,130 lb/A; Buckwheat – 1,800 lb/A). Cover crops also affected lettuce yield:


Marketable lettuce number

Marketable weight (kg)

No cover crop









Sorghum Sudangrass



Sorghum sudangrass and buckwheat produced significant biomass but did not benefit the following lettuce crop. There were no marketable lettuce heads from the sorghum sudangrass plots. This could potentially be due to allelapathic effect of sorghum sudangrass or nitrogen tie up by the decomposing cover crop. Cowpea increased both number and weight of marketable lettuce heads. As a legume cover crop cowpea has the potential to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Short duration cover crops, thus, are excellent choices as tools for crop rotation, weed suppression, and crop diversification. 

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Evaluation and feedback
All workshops and field days included a pre- and post-evaluation. The pre-workshop/field day evaluation established baseline knowledge, attitude, skills, and current programming efforts in cover cropping area. The post-workshop/field day evaluation measured changes in attitude, knowledge, and skills as a result of participation in the event. Below are evaluation results:

Reporting data from 4 October, 2013, Ames, IA (Field Day at Horticulture Research Station, Ames, IA)
Rating scale used: 0=None; 1=Low; 2=Moderate; 3=High


Average score before workshop

Average score after workshop

Fundamentals  Of Cover Cropping



Potential Benefits/ Challenges of cover crops



Cover crops used in Fruit and Vegetable Prod.



Impact of Cover crops on Soil Biological properties



Program impact 
Rating scale: 1=Strongly Disagree; 2=Disagree; 3=Neutral; 4=Agree; 5=Strongly Agree

1. I have processed information into new knowledge– 4.3
2. I will use new information to answer client questions – 4.1
3. I was able to network with growers/colleagues – 4.2
4. I will incorporate information on cover crops in my extension events – 3.9
5. I feel more informed about cover crops and their applications – 4.4

 In the first year of the project, cover crop workshops, field days, and professional development sessions exposed the target audience to cover crops and the endless possibilities of using them in current fruit and vegetable cropping systems. Some of the key outcomes in this first year include:
1. Creation of awareness among extension personnel, agricultural professionals, and organization leaders about cover cropping options, tools, and benefits, 
2. A much more trained agricultural extension staff on cover crop selection tools, cover crop characteristics and their use in fruit and vegetable production systems. 
3. Broader impact by including participants from Iowa, Missouri, and underserved communities such as the Amish community in Kalona, IA.
4. Involvement of industry leaders and grower organizations and involving them to understand the importance of cover crops and its ability to increase farm diversity, productivity and economic profitability.  
5. Building capacity by training junior extension agents who will become advocates of land stewarship agricultural sustainability.


Dr. Thomas Kaspar

[email protected]
Senior Scientist
USDA-ARS, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
2110 University Blvd.
USDA-ARS, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
Ames, IA 50011
Office Phone: 5152948873
Dr. Gail Nonnecke

[email protected]
Iowa State University
Horticulture Hall
Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
Office Phone: 5152940037