Quantifying the Impacts of Planting Cover Crops as a Conservation Tool to Reduce Nutrient Loss from Midwestern Farms

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2015: $9,999.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Grant Recipient: University of Notre Dame
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Jennifer Tank
University of Notre Dame


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Natural Resources/Environment: water quality
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems

    Proposal abstract:

    In the Midwestern US, subsurface tile drainage systems facilitate the transport of excess fertilizer nutrients like nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) to adjacent streams, where they are then transported downriver causing numerous environmental problems including contaminated drinking water, downstream algal blooms, and subsequent hypoxic “dead zones” after the blooms die and decompose.  Planting cover crops is a conservation tool that can be used to reduce N and P loss via tile drains by retaining excess N and P on agricultural fields during Winter and Spring when fields are normally bare. This project, titled “Quantifying the impacts of planting cover crops as a conservation tool to reduce nutrient loss from Midwestern farms”, will quantify the water quality and quantity benefits of implementing cover crops at the watershed-scale. We will plant ~70% of the Shatto Ditch Watershed (Kosciusko Co., IN.) in cover crop and collect water samples from tile drain outlets and stream sites every 14 days. This high-frequency sampling will allow us to accurately determine how cover crops reduce nitrogen and phosphorus exports from agricultural fields. We will effectively translate the results of our research to potential adopters/promoters of cover crops throughout the region using an already-successful schedule of meetings and field days. We will use these outreach activities to encourage and facilitate the adoption of large-scale cover crop implementation. We will evaluate the progress of our water quality monitoring using continuous water chemistry analysis, data processing, and quarterly reports to and meetings with our partners.  The outcomes of this project will provide hard, quantitative data about the water quality benefits of cover crops to farmers and resource managers.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Learning Outcomes:



      1. We will quantify the water quality and quantity benefits of watershed-scale cover crop implementation through the monitoring of the Shatto Ditch Watershed. We will transfer knowledge and awareness of the conservation benefits to resource managers such as local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, The Nature Conservancy, NRCS staff in Indiana, and local and regional farmers and landowners.



    Action Objectives:



      1. Our results will encourage and facilitate large-scale cover crop implementation because we will disseminate our knowledge widely by building on our established outreach and education infrastructure. Our project team will work with a large group of local and regional stakeholders, and we are confident that our results will reach an influential audience that is positioned to adopt the most effective conservation practices. 


      1. We will facilitate the effective transfer of cover crop implementation to other agricultural watersheds within the greater Midwestern region. Through our outreach and education efforts, we will encourage stakeholders in this region to implement cover crops at the watershed scale.


    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.