Improving Soil Health and Cropping Systems Sustainability through Cover Crops: An Integrated Research, Education, and Support Approach

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2024: $399,991.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2027
Grant Recipients: Middle Tennessee State University; University of Kentucky
Region: Southern
State: Tennessee
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Samuel Haruna
Middle Tennessee State University
Dr. Song Cui
Middle Tennessee State University
Dr. Justin Gardner
Middle Tennessee State University
Dr. John Grove
University of Kentucky
Dr. Chaney Mosley
Middle Tennessee State University
Dr. Edwin Ritchey
University of Kentucky


No commodities identified


No practices identified

Proposal abstract:

The current global climate variability, increasing human
population, and economic burden on producers have exacerbated the
need for improvements in current agricultural practices. These
improvements require a systems approach with the goal of
maintaining, and preferably improving, the sustainability of
current cropping systems and their economic viability under
changing climatic conditions, while ensuring environmental
sustainability. Cover crops have been identified as a management
practice that can achieve these goals. However, cover crop
adoption, even though growing, still struggles to meet ideal
levels of agronomic and environmental needs partly due to a lack
of site-specific management protocols and planting equipment. The
proposed project will leverage existing research plots
established in 2020 so that even in a span of a three-year grant,
the long-term (4-7 years) effects of cover crops on soil health
can still be evaluated. The proposed project will use a
multidisciplinary systems approach to improve soil health
parameters and cover crop adoption through research, outreach,
and support for small scale farmers in the Southeastern region.
This goal will be achieved by addressing the following questions:
1) how can cover crops influence soil physical and thermal
properties measured in situ, 2) what soil health
indicators and cash crop growth parameters can be influenced, 3)
how do cover crops affect the interdependence between soil health
indicators, disease incidence and pest damage, cropping systems
and environmental sustainability, and economic viability of
farming systems, and 4) to what extent does providing education,
outreach, and support to local and small-scale farmers improve
cover crop adoption? This project focusses on Southern SARE
program objectives of enhancing productivity (evaluating cropping
systems productivity relative to heat transport in a changing
global climate, Obj. 1), enhancing stewardship (by using cover
crops to improve soil health, Obj. 2), improving profitability
(by evaluating the pest damage, disease incidence, and economic
viability of cover crops, Obj. 3), and promoting the resilience
of producers (providing education, outreach and support through a
no-till seed drill to producers, Obj. 4). The proposed project is
unique because it will be one of the first projects to help local
farmers improve cover crop adoption through peer education
involving collaborating farmers, and by making a no-till cover
crop seed drill readily available for farmers to use. This
project will also encourage collaboration between researchers and
farmers and the participation of students in various institutions
within the Southeastern region. Results of the project activities
will be published in peer-reviewed journals, summaries will be
made available on social media, via research and institutional
websites and promoted through extension educational programs.
Education and outreach efforts will lead to the development of
lesson and activity plans for improving high school student
interest and engagement in sustainable agriculture. This resource
will be made available on institutional websites, and added to
the ‘educator resources list’ on the participating state
Departments of Education website. 

Project objectives from proposal:

  1. Investigate the influence of cover crops (3-4 mix of winter
    wheat, crimson clover, triticale, hairy vetch, canola (rape),
    radishes, turnips, and cereal rye) on in situ measured
    soil properties (saturated hydraulic conductivity, water content,
    soil water potential, soil temperature, soil thermal
    conductivity, and heat capacity) at 0-10, 10-20 and 20-30 cm
    depths (farmers will be involved with sensor installation and
    cover crop selection). Learning Outcome:
    participating farmers learn the philosophies behind research
    design, sensor identification and integration in research.
    Farmers will also learn about the mechanisms by which cover crops
    can help improve soil resilience under variable atmospheric
    conditions. Action Outcome: 12 producers (in
    both Tennessee and Kentucky) incorporate sensors and technology
    for monitoring soil properties, with the added benefit of
    improving precision agriculture.
  2. Evaluate cover crop influence on soil health indicators
    (e.g., soil organic carbon, soil bulk density, water retention,
    pore size distribution, water infiltration, soil N, pH, microbial
    biomass, and greenhouse gas [CO2, CH4,
    N2O] emissions), insect and disease incidence, and
    cash crop growth plant parameters (height, biomass, chlorophyll
    content, yield). Collaborating farmers and students will help
    with measurements and sample collection. Learning
    participating farmers and students will learn
    how to evaluate various soil health indicators, in situ
    and ex situ, and how to use cover crops to optimize soil
    health indicators and crop productivity. Action
    producers increase cover crop usage to reduce
    insect and disease incidence, and improve soil health and
  3. Assess the influence of cover crop management on the
    interdependence of soil health indicators, cropping systems and
    environmental sustainability, and economic viability.
    Learning Outcome: participating farmers,
    students, and collaborators will learn how to determine economic
    viability of cropping systems, understand how systems research is
    conducted and how a systems approach can help improve cropping
    systems and environmental sustainability. Action
    researchers will develop guidelines for a
    systems approach to sustainable agriculture.
  4. Provide outreach education to local producers on the use of
    cover crops and a systems approach to improve soil health and
    cropping systems sustainability and resilience. Disseminate
    research results, with farmer help and input, through extension
    service training and materials. Support local and minority
    farmers through the purchase of a cover crop seed drill that will
    be made available to these farmers at no cost to them.
    Learning Outcome: 80 farmers in Tennessee and
    Kentucky learn to use cover crops to improve the economic
    productivity of their cropping systems. Action
    Educators organize farmer-led field days and
    provide recommendations on climate-smart agricultural strategies.
    Resource-limited producers have increased access to cover crop
    planting equipment.
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.