Increasing Cropping System Sustainability through the Adoption of Cover Crop and Rotational No-Till Strategies

2008 Annual Report for LNE08-268

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $144,815.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Rita Seidel
Rodale Institute

Increasing Cropping System Sustainability through the Adoption of Cover Crop and Rotational No-Till Strategies


Note to the reader: Attachments or appendices mentioned in this report are available from Northeast SARE. Send e-mail to [email protected] or call 802/656-0471. Please reference project LNE08-268 in your inquiry.

Building upon successful problem-solving research, this project will actively engage farmers, providing training resources for integrating cover crops and rotational no-till cropping practices that will save energy and labor, while improving soil and water.

Farmer participants will engage in active-learning through a coordinated examination of a long-term (27 year) study in which a series of farmer-ready practices are being assessed. The Rodale Institute is uniquely positioned to work with farmers in this living farm field laboratory as our research and demonstration farm is the only one of its kind in the region where the long-term effects of organic farming methods have accrued over 27 years. Farmers will observe first-hand the effects of transitioning a subset of these mature plots to more sustainable practices.

Using a novel and empowering technology transfer approach, farmer participants will first learn about cover crops and rotational tillage in the long-term trial, and then transfer that knowledge to their own farming operations by participating in a meta-experiment testing these practices. Each farm involved in this experiment will serve as a replicate set of common treatments. Farmers will gain active-adaptive problems solving skills and educate others in their own social networks. Best management practices based on this research will be outreached through three field days, conferences, a peer-reviewed manuscript, a technical bulletin, online articles, and peer-to-peer learning. As a result of this project, 50 non-organic farmers will incorporate cover crops into their operations to reduce herbicide and fertilizer use, 25 organic farmers will use rolled/crimped cover crops to suppress weeds in no-till planted crops, and 15 extension educators will incorporate project results into educational programs.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Beneficiary Target: Fifty non-organic farmers will integrate cover crops to reduce herbicide and fertilizer inputs impacting more than 2000 acres. Twenty five organic farmers will strategically utilize rolled/crimped cover crops to suppress weeds in no-till planted cash crops on at least 250 acres. Fifteen county based extension educators will acquire new knowledge of cover crops and rotational no-till practices and incorporate project findings into education programs.

Research Target: Elucidate costs and benefits of different cropping systems in terms of energetic efficiency and economic performance and publish rigorous multi-year comparative soil carbon, yield, labor, and input data from standard- and no-till organic and conventional cropping systems that incorporate cover crops.


Milestone 1 – 1,000 farmers and researchers learn about the project and planned field day via an introductory article on (

Tracking records for our website showed that we exceeded this milestone goal. The article had 1,598 unique viewers by Dec 12, 2008. It can be accessed at and is also included as Attachment #1 to this report.

Milestone 2 – 70 farmers and researchers participate in field day at TRI, demonstrating use of cover crop based rotational no-till and optimized no-till systems in FST.

The Rodale Institute’s ‘Organic No-Till: New Farming Strategy for the 21st Century’ field day on Friday, July 18 focused on demonstrations of no-till practices and equipment for small farm vegetable production along with various aspects of cultural weed management and cover crops. Several speakers gave technical presentations about the science behind organic no-tillage management including:

No-Till Vegetable for Small Farms-Ron Morse, Ph.D. – Professor of Horticulture, Virginia Tech

No-Till Equipment-Jeff Moyer – Farm Director, Rodale Institute

Expressive Weed Management and the Mechanics of Mulch-Steven Mirsky, Ph.D. – Research Ecologist, USDA ARS Beltsville MD and Matthew Ryan – Rodale Agroecologist and Penn State doctoral student

Utilization of cover crops in organic no-till corn-Dave Wilson – Research Agronomist, Rodale Institute and Ruth Mick – Penn State University graduate student

FST Overview and Jigsaw Learning Activity-Rita Seidel – FST Project Leader, Rodale Institute
Matthew Ryan – Rodale Agroecologist and Penn State doctoral student

This milestone was also exceeded since 93 people attended the field day. A summary of the survey responses we received after the field day is included as Attachment #2.

The “jigsaw” activity at the field day (excerpts from the proposal in italics)
During the first two years of the project, field days will be hosted in July at TRI that incorporate speaking presentations, field demonstrations, and an innovative ‘jigsaw’ group learning activity to engage active participation and input from the attendees. The jigsaw activity breaks the workshop audience into small groups that, with the help of a facilitator, will discuss one specific aspect of the systems in the FST, such as nitrogen fertility or weed management. Participants will suggest and discuss ways to transfer the demonstrated systems into their operations, and how they would adapt and improve the practices. These small groups will then split up and regroup so that one member of each original group is present in each of the second small groups. Each new group member will then share what they discussed and learned in the first group, compiling a summary of important ideas that will be presented to the entire audience by chosen small-group leaders at the end of the session. This active learning technique was introduced in the 1960’s (, and was implemented with tremendous success during a TRI-sponsored on-farm field day in July 2007 at the West-Haven farm in Ithaca, NY.

Participants in the 2008 Rodale Institute field day got to interact with one another and eight researchers in discussion groups at the end of the information-packed event. Joining Rodale Institute staff to interact with participants were specialists from Penn State, Virginia Tech and the USDA Agricultural Research Service Beltsville facility.

The final sessions of the day’s program took place in the Institute’s flagship research Farming Systems Trial. Matt Ryan, the Institute’s agroecologist and doctoral student at Penn State, led an interactive “Jigsaw” exercise in which small groups rotated between four wagons to share information on weed management, soil fertility, pest management and cover crops with crop and soils systems experts.

“The exercise was a new activity for us and we were not sure how it would go,” Ryan said. “But a number of farmers commented that they really enjoyed the discussion and they learned a lot from one other. One of the best things about the exercise was that farmers identified problems that may not have been covered in the field day presentations.”

Group members named their leading problems and questions in the opening moments of the sessions, then spent the balance of their time together discussing possible answers, with input and clarifying questions from the agricultural specialists.

For complete coverage and insight into the diversity of the discussions and farmer-to-farmer learning, see the articles (and slideshows) at the links below:

Jigsaw report #1: Pests, as in weeds, insects and diseases (Attachment #3 to this report)
Field-day visitors learn about organic no-till, interact with researchers on worst problems, best answers.
By Greg Bowman

Jigsaw report #2: Cover crops and healthy soil (Attachment #4 to this report)
Field-day farm, researcher and agribusiness visitors listen, share insights on how cover crops and soil management connect with organic no-till planting systems.
By Greg Bowman

Milestone 3 – 20 participating farmers receive free seed (25 pounds of rye and hairy vetch), and help in a) developing a rotation to fit their needs and b) establishing on-farm research as part of a meta-experiment to evaluate benefits of cover crops (7-08).

The intensive cover crop workshop (excerpts from the proposal in italics)
At the end of the first TRI field day, we will offer an intensive workshop for 20 farmers where we will distribute cover crop seed to them in time for fall planting, and develop plans to adapt the observed practices to their own farm conditions. Farmers attending the workshop will apply for an invitation prior to the field day, and will be selected based on the perceived impact potential and likelihood of successful technology transfer. TRI researchers will work with ten of these farmers to implement a regional meta-experiment to test the effects of cover crops and rotational tillage on soil quality indicators by establishing multi-year on-farm cover crop plots. Total soil carbon and chemically labile organic matter will be monitored in these plot. This approach will further heighten their already active roles in the research and learning process.

Eight farmers who attended the field day also participated in an intensive workshop after the field day on July 18. The goal of the workshop was to continue the conversation with individuals who were interested in trying cover crops or the organic no-till systems in 2009. Each of these farmers received 25 pounds of rye and hairy vetch seed. This part of the project proved to be one of the most difficult, and thus we recommend spacing out these types of activities so that there is time to digest material that was discussed during the field day before learning more detailed information. Since we did not reach our target of 20 farmers for this exercise we will try alternative means to provide additional farmers with cover crop seed. Our current plan to remediate this missed target is to work with local Penn State Cooperative Extension Educators to identify farmer partners. We will contact these farmers in the spring of 2009 to survey them about their experiences with the cover crops.

Advisory Panel

In 2008 we convened an advisory panel to consult with us in implementing a massive overhaul of the Farming Systems Trial with the goal of making it more relevant to modern farmers and addressing pertinent research questions that will benefit both organic and no-till farmers. The panel consisted of highly respected farmers and researchers who are committed to sustainable agriculture.

The first Advisory Panel meeting took place on July 17, 2008. The following people attended:

•Paul Hepperly, Matt Ryan, Rita Seidel, Dave Wilson, Jeff Moyer (all Rodale Institute)
•William Curran, Ph.D. – Weed Scientist, Penn State
•Steve Groff – Pennsylvania No-Till Farmer
•William Mason Jr. – Maryland Organic Farmer
•Joel Myers – Pennsylvania No-Till Farmer
•Steven Mirsky, Ph.D. – USDA ARS, Beltsville, MD
•Dave Mortensen, Ph.D. – Weed Ecologist, Penn State
•Eddie Taylor – Maryland Organic Farmer
•John Teasdale, Ph.D. – USDA ARS, Beltsville, MD
•Ray Weil, Ph.D. – Soil Scientist, University of Maryland

After giving an overview over the history of the Farming Systems Trial, we introduced the changes that are planned to incorporate no-till into the trial. These introductions were followed by a number of questions to the Panel, which mainly addressed if and how the current rotations need to be adjusted from the original plan.

Based on the comments and suggestions from the Panel members we decided to modify the management of the conventional no-till system so that it represents a hybrid system that bridges conventional no-till with organic practices. For example, the rotation will be expanded in the conventional no-till system to include wheat, and a hairy vetch cover crop will also be planted before corn. We believe this modification will serve us well in our pursuit to attract a larger, more diverse, audience. Modifications and a summary of our previous discussion are included as Attachments #5 and #6 to this report.

The next Advisory Panel meeting is planned for Friday, February 6, 2009 at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture Conference (PASA) in State College, PA. At this meeting we will review the results from 2008 and discuss finalizing system management plans.

Upcoming Outreach

Presentation to be given at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the
Northeastern Weed Science Society Baltimore, MD January 5-8, 2009


M.R. Ryan, Penn State Univ., University Park, D.A. Mortensen, Penn State Univ., University Park, R. Seidel, Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA, R.G. Smith, Penn State Univ., University Park, and A.M. Grantham, Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA

No-tillage management practices have become increasingly popular in Pennsylvania with 48 and 62% of corn and soybean, respectively, no-till planted in 2008. These systems have environmental benefits such as reduced soil erosion; however, they require increased weed management and are thus more dependent on herbicides than tillage-based systems. Organic farmers have expressed interest in no-tillage management but are prohibited from using most herbicides, and those that are permitted in organic production are usually cost prohibitive. A hybrid system has been developed which utilizes mulch from rolled/crimped cover crops such as cereal rye (Secale cereale L.) and hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) to suppress weeds in place of herbicides. Although cover crops can provide effective weed suppression in these systems, continuous no-tillage in organic systems is not yet possible due to incomplete weed control provided by cover crops alone. Therefore, rotational no-tillage systems may be a more realistic strategy for organic producers. Since these systems are still in their infancy, it is unclear how organic rotational no-tillage practices will alter weed abundance and community composition.

Conventional no-tillage and organic rotational no-tillage systems were tested in a long term cropping systems trial that compared two organic grain operations that differed primarily in the source of N inputs (MNR-manure and LEG-legume) to a conventional (CNV) grain operation that utilized mineral fertilizer. The three no-tillage systems were incorporated into the long-term trial by transitioning four of the original eight blocks. The other four blocks were maintained as traditional tillage systems, with chisel plow tillage used in the CNV system and moldboard plow tillage used in the MNR and LEG systems. This approach allowed us to assess the no-tillage systems while conserving the original tillage systems for comparisons. Here we report results from 2008, the first year of the transition to no-tillage. Our hypotheses were: 1) organic tillage systems would have fewer weeds than no-tillage systems and 2) perennial weeds would be more abundant in the no-tillage systems. Interestingly, there was no difference in total weed biomass between the organic tillage and organic no-tillage systems. This result shows that organic no-tillage systems can be competitive with organic tillage systems. Perennial weeds accounted for 27–36% of total biomass in the organic no-tillage systems, whereas they were completely absent in the organic tillage systems. There was no difference in the abundance of perennial versus annual weeds between conventional tillage and conventional no-tillage. Additional research is necessary to determine whether observed trends in weed abundance and community composition in organic no-tillage systems remain consistent over time.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Survey results from the first field day show that we reached a large number of farmers and extension educators, increasing their awareness and understanding of organic and sustainable techniques. Over 87% of participants responded that they will consider incorporating cover crops into their practices as a result of information received at this year’s field day and 41% of farmers said that the field day increased their motivation to try organic practices on their farm.

Detailed data collection for the different cropping systems in the Farming Systems Trial is on-going to determine energetic efficiency and economic performance.


Dr. Thomas Richard

[email protected]
Associate Professor
The Pennsylvania State University
100 Land and Water Res. Bldg
University Park, PA 16801
Dr. William Curran

[email protected]
Professor of Weed Science
The Pennsylvania State University
116 ASI Building
University Park, PA 16801
Office Phone: 8148631014
Jeff Moyer

[email protected]
Rodale Institute Farm Manager
Rodale Institute
611 Siegfriedale Rd
Kutztown, PA 19530
Office Phone: 6106831420