Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Demonstrations

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $29,810.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. James DeDecker
Michigan State University AgBioResearch and Extension

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, oats, rye, soybeans
  • Vegetables: radishes (culinary)


  • Crop Production: cover crops


    MSU Extension Presque Isle County, in partnership with three Michigan Conservation Districts, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and local field crop producers received $29,810 in grant funds from the NC-SARE Partnership Grant Program for the ‘Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Demonstrations’ project.  This project investigated and demonstrated cooperative aerial seeding as a method of timely cover crop establishment on Northeast MI corn and soybean acres.  Cereal rye (CR), an oat-oilseed radish blend (O-OR) and winter wheat (WW) were aerially overseeded into 17 fields (662 total acres) of corn and soybean prior to harvest in 2015.  400 acres were managed as research and demonstration sites highlighted by a comprehensive outreach campaign and series of four extension events designed to educate producers on the potential benefits and challenges of aerial cover crop overseeding. 

    Data was collected on cover crop establishment, biomass yield and tissue nitrogen.  Establishment was compromised by variable soil moisture conditions and competition with standing corn in some fields, as well as apparent herbicide carryover in one instance (averaging 33.65% overall).  Recorded biomass yields were modest (averaging 396 lbs DM/a for O-OR and 904 lbs DM/a for CR), but this measure was partially confounded by combine clipping of cover crops at soybean harvest.  Estimated plant available nitrogen (PAN) from cover crops was average for non-legume species (3-14 lbs/a in 2016).  83% (n=18) of project participants reported increased knowledge of cover crops and aerial seeding technology.  46% (n=13) reported increasing their use of cover crops by an average of 108 acres per grower in 2015, and 50% of growers (n=8) expressed interest in continuing cooperative aerial cover crop seeding in the future.  However, this was not pursued in 2016 due to the relatively high cost of this practice over other establishment methods.  This project was followed-up in 2016 with a study investigating early season interseeding of cover crops in corn using high clearance ground equipment.

    SARE Aerial Seeding Final Report Figures


    Cereal rye (CR) is the most popular winter cover crop in northern climates due to its ability to germinate under relatively cool temperatures and produce abundant biomass (1, 2).  Enhanced nutrient use efficiency (3, 4), water holding capacity (5) and yield stability (6, 2) associated with CR cover crop use are of interest to producers in Northeast Michigan, who commonly farm coarse textured, low OM soils. Winterkilled cover crops, such as oats and oilseed radish (O-OR), are also of interest due to the reduced risk of spring planting interference they offer.  The potential for increased profitability on the farm, as well as external benefits to the larger community in the form of enhanced water quality and improved economic stability, have stimulated grower interest in cover crops.  However, adoption of winter cover crops remains low in Northeast MI because timely establishment on local corn and soybean acres using traditional seeding equipment is frequently precluded by harvest operations that carry-on into November and poor late-season field conditions (7, 2).

    Alternative seeding technologies (aerial and high clearance ground equipment) are available to address this barrier by overseeding a cover crop prior to fall harvest of corn or soybeans (8). Yet, the significant financial and logistical investments required to drop seed from an airplane or access high clearance seeding equipment often outweigh somewhat less tangible improvements in long-term soil health.

    Yet, a 2012 survey conducted by North Central SARE found that under drought conditions corn and soybeans planted after cover crops yielded 10.6% more, on average, than fields without covers. Cover crops can certainly pay off, but what can be done to enhance the viability of aerial seeding? Cover crop innovators in other states such as Iowa and Indiana have tackled this problem by developing cooperative aerial seeding programs coordinated by local agriculture professionals (9). These programs aggregate acres to be seeded across a few counties, thereby reducing producers’ individual costs for seed and aerial application.  Following this example, the Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Demonstrations project was designed to investigate and demonstrate cooperative aerial seeding as a method of timely cover crop establishment on Northeast MI corn and soybean acres. 

    Project objectives:

    • Establish four 100 acre aerial seeding demonstration sites in 2015 featuring corn and soybeans overseeded with cereal rye or an oat-oilseed radish blend
    • Recruit additional producers and aggregate acres to be seeded through the Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Program
    • Deliver four outreach events to 1) educate producers on cover crop benefits/challenges and the opportunity of cooperative aerial overseeding, 2) demonstrate aerial overseeding in the field, 3) allow growers to assess results of aerial cover crop seeding and 4) share information on various methods of cover crop termination
    • Encourage participation in NRCS conservation programs (EQIP and CSP) that provide financial incentives for cover crop use
    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.