Impacts of cover crops and tillage on predator-prey interactions within organic cropping systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,635.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Penn State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Mary Barbercheck
PSU Dept. of Entomology

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Pest Management: biological control, cultural control, mulches - killed

    Proposal abstract:

    Reducing synthetic chemical inputs and tillage can have numerous benefits in agroecosystems, such as building soil health, promoting biodiversity, and reducing non-target effects of pesticides. In addition to these benefits, low-disturbance cropping systems may also enhance predator communities and the potential for predators to suppress pests. While tillage can kill or disrupt invertebrates, planting a winter cover crop may help sustain invertebrate communities by providing habitat and nutritional resources. This work will complement an ongoing study investigating soil and cover crop management practices on invertebrates within a reduced-tillage organic cropping systems experiment. We will measure crop damage from invertebrates, characterize invertebrate communities, and measure predation rate of insects in corn plots undergoing four different crop management strategies. This work will identify key predators contributing to feeding within these cropping systems and allow us to understand which management practices most effectively enhance predation and suppress damage from pests. 

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1: Characterize and compare pest and beneficial soil-associated invertebrate communities in four organic corn production systems designed to reduce tillage and incorporate cover crops

    Performance Target 1: Planting winter cover crops and reducing tillage will increase invertebrate populations by increasing habitat complexity and reducing disturbance.  Characterizing the soil-dwelling community will allow us to understand the diversity and beneficial and detrimental roles of invertebrates in these systems.  Invertebrates will be more diverse and abundant in corn that has been no-till planted due to the decreased disturbance, especially early in the season.  Cover crops established by interseeding into corn mid-season will help re-establish predator populations that may have been disrupted by earlier crop establishment using tillage.

    Objective 2: Assess pest damage to corn in four organic corn production systems designed to reduce tillage and incorporate cover crops

    Performance Target 2: Through our assessment of pest damage, we will evaluate risks producers face when implementing cover crops or reducing tillage. Damage from insect feeding will be lowest in cropping systems that have the highest predator abundance and diversity, which will be no-till planted corn early in the season and corn interseeded with cover crops later in the season. The highest damage will occur in plots that have been tilled but lack the interseeded cover crop to provide habitat during the growing season.

    Objective 3: Evaluate biological control potential of predatory invertebrates in four organic corn production systems designed to reduce tillage and incorporate cover crops

    Performance Target 3: By identifying key predators and measuring their predation rate, we will evaluate different management practices for their ability to conserve beneficial predators and enhance the level of biological control. Predation rates will be highest in no-till planted corn due to reduced mechanical disturbance, especially early in the season. Interseeding of cover crops will allow plots to bounce back from negative impacts of tillage on invertebrate predation rates. 

    Objective 4: Communicate results from this and other research projects focused on reducing tillage and incorporating cover crops through presentations, informational handouts, and presentations at scientific and grower conferences.

    Performance Target 4: By working with producers and other stakeholders, we will ensure the applicability of our results and better address their needs regarding pest management decisions.  We will facilitate organic grain production through reduced crop losses from pest damage, enhanced biological control, and increased effectiveness of reduced-tillage cover cropping.

    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.