Farmer field school approach to increasing cover crop adoption in Iowa and Minnesota

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $174,295.73
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Grant Recipient: Practical Farmers of Iowa
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Sarah Carlson
Practical Farmers of Iowa

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: barley, corn, grass (misc. perennial), hay, oats, rye, spelt, soybeans, wheat
  • Vegetables: carrots, peas (culinary), radishes (culinary), turnips
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, winter forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, no-till, strip tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, focus group, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: allelopathy, chemical control, cultural control, smother crops
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, organic agriculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: leadership development, sustainability measures


    The Iowa and Minnesota Farmer Field School project focused on increasing cover crop adoption has now completed all grant deliverables. Our unique strategy, farmer field schools, allowed farmers and key participants to disseminate cover crop information with hands-on experience and practice via the demonstration acres, field days, and workshops to increase the adoption of cover crops in the Iowa and Minnesota landscape.


    Research indicates multiple benefits from the use of cover crops with annual cropping systems. These benefits are diverse and help farmers transition to a more sustainable cropping system. The key benefits are:
    ? Cover crops sustain and improve the natural resource base system on which agriculture depends
    ? Cover crops significantly reduced nitrate leaching to subsurface drainage.
    ? Cover crops improve profitability by improving soil health, improve nutrient cycling, reduce soil erosion during critical times and enhance upland water storage.
    ? Cover crops provide harvest flexibility including soil cover, grazing, biomass, harvest and grain harvest. Cover crops provide important protection for groundwater recharge and source water protection.
    This project was initiated because although a wealth of information for cover crops exists, farmers have not adopted cover crops as a management tool on a broad scale due to timing constraints in the fall following harvest, inadequate financial incentives for farmers, and lack of a strategic outreach plan to resource people and farmers. By the end of this project farmers reported significantly better understanding of cover crops plus converted that knowledge into added acres of cover crops in the IA and MN landscapes.

    Project objectives:

    Long-term outcomes or systemic changes, which take longer to measure than the duration of this proposed project, would be improved water quality, reduced nitrogen use, and longer crop rotations from the addition of cover crops. Our project was initiated to increase adoption of cover crops which are a useful management tool for enhancing sustainability; reducing negative environmental impacts of annual cropping practices and support transition toward more sustainable perennial based cropping systems. To move toward this long-term outcome several short-term and intermediate outcomes have been accomplished.

    Intermediate outcomes included increased practical experience with cover crops, increased and sustained usage of cover crops, and an improved CCDT resulting in increased usage. To measure these outcomes we have worked with several target audience participants to gather baseline information and post-project information. First, because the National Agriculture Statistical Survey or any other census body at the state or federal level does not collect data on cover crop acres in the state of Iowa and Minnesota we estimated acreage in 2009. To estimate acreage we worked with multiple organizations in both Iowa and Minnesota to acquire cover crop acreage. Between winter 2009 and spring 2010 farmers attending or within networks of these organizations were surveyed about their use of cover crops: at farmer meetings such as Pesticide Applicator Training workshops, the offices of Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS] and Farm Services Agency [FSA], local Soil and Water Conservation Districts [SWCD], workshops at commodity group meetings and extension. The same survey was given to farmers at the end of the project in fall 2012. Additionally, PFI members and farmers in the RA network received an end of project survey. Survey questions included: number of acres planted to cover crops during the project period; change in use either by adopting the practice, increasing acres planted or trying new species; and finally inquiry about resources used to increase cover crop knowledge to verify use of CCDT. Finally, at the end of the project we surveyed farmers who were in on-farm trials with PFI and RA. They were asked to identify if an increase in cover crop acres had spread to their neighbors within a 10-mile radius around their farm. Cooperators were asked to report how many new acres of cover crops existed each winter of the project in the 10 mile radius around their farm and how many farmers they networked with about using cover crops.

    Short-term outcomes from this project was to increase awareness and knowledge of key information about cover crops to our target audience who consisted of but were not limited to: farmers, crop consultants and representatives of NRCS, Iowa and Minnesota Depts of Agriculture, FSA, SWCD, watershed associations, university extension and field agronomists and industry groups like Soybean Association, Corn Growers and water works staff. We provided farmer leaders opportunities to improve teaching and presentation skills. In addition, we increased interaction between resource people like extension or agency representatives and farmers where farmers were in charge of disseminating information to the resource community. These outcomes were measured by number of attendees at field days, type of attendee (i.e. farmer versus resource representative) and evaluation surveys sent via email or mailed to field day attendees and listening session participants.

    Sample questions on the evaluation survey included:
    • How effectively was the information presented?
    • How useful was the information presented?
    • What was your knowledge level prior to the meeting? After?
    • Are you considering changing any farming practices as a result of the information received at this field day? OR Are you considering encouraging farmers to plant cover crops as a result of the information received?
    • Overall, did the field day exceed, fall short, or meet you expectations?

    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.