Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Demonstrations

2015 Annual Report for ONC15-001

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

Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Demonstrations


Northeast MI Aerial Cover Crop Seeding 2015 Report Figures

MSU Extension Presque Isle County, in partnership with three Michigan Conservation Districts (Montmorency, Presque Isle and Alpena Counties), the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and local field crop producers received $29,810 in grant funds from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Partnership Grant Program to investigate and demonstrate cooperative aerial seeding as a method of timely cover crop establishment on Northeast MI corn and soybean acres.

Cereal rye is the most popular winter cover crop in northern climates due to its ability to germinate under relatively cool temperatures and produce abundant biomass. Enhanced nutrient use efficiency and yield stability associated with rye cover crop use are of interest to producers in Northeast Michigan, who commonly farm less-than-ideal soils. Winterkilled cover crops, such as oats and oilseed radish, are also of interest due to the flexibility and reduced risk of spring planting interference they offer. However, timely cover crop 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.

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. 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. Most row crop acres in Northeast Michigan are not currently seeded with a cover crop.

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 and other regions of Michigan have tackled this problem by developing cooperative aerial seeding programs coordinated by local agriculture professionals. 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 used aerial overseeding to establish cereal rye, an oat-oilseed radish blend and winter wheat in 662 acres of corn and soybeans 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. Events were designed to educate producers on the potential benefits and challenges of aerial cover crop overseeding.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  • Partner with four growers to establish 400 demo acres of cereal rye or oat-radish blend flown into corn and soybeans

Between late March and late June 2015, the project partners held three planning meetings to identify a seed supplier and aerial seeding service provider, address seeding logistics and plan our outreach events. Collaborating growers selected fields for the project, made the decision to trial an oat-radish blend as a winterkilled alternative to cereal rye, selected seeding rates and determined what data would be collected. On August 27th, 2015 Al’s Aerial Spraying of Ovid, MI flew from three local airports to seed 295 acres of cereal rye, 300 acres of oat-radish blend and 67 acres of winter wheat in corn and soybean fields in Presque Isle, Alpena and Otsego Counties (see map). 400 of these acres were established through the grant as research and demonstration sites with more extensive monitoring and data collection than the remaining paid acres. Cover crop stand counts, fall biomass and tissue nitrogen data was collected last fall. Spring biomass and tissue nitrogen data will be collected from cereal rye fields this spring.

  • Deliver four outreach events: 
    1. Aerial Seeding Workshop (workshop flier)
      • On July 14th, 2015 the project partners offered a Cooperative Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Workshop in Hillman, MI.  21 producers and 11 agency partners attended this event to hear presentations on Cover Crops 101 (James DeDecker), Cooperative Aerial Seeding (Kay Holubik and Blaine Baker, Lenawee Conservation District), Cost Share Opportunities through NRCS (Perry Smeltzer, NRCS) and the Dover Oat-Radish Blend available to our growers through LaCrosse Seed (Jay Hallenbeck, LaCrosse Seed).  Lunch was served at the event, sponsored by Monsanto. 
    2. Field Demonstration
      • On August 27th, 2015 22 producers and agency partners came out to participate in aerial seeding operations in Presque Isle, Montmorency and Otsego Counties. Growers delivered seed to three local airports, assisted with ground crew activities where needed, and observed seeding operations from the field with their friends and neighbors.
    3. Aerial Seeding Field Tour (tour flier)
      • On October 16th, 2015 the project partners offered an Aerial Seeding Field Tour. Thirteen participants joined the tour to view the results of aerial cover crop interseeding operations conducted in late August and learned about using cover crops to enhance their production systems.   The event began with a rainfall simulator demonstration to communicate the effect of cover crops and other management practices on soil erosion, water infiltration and environmental quality. Participants were then bussed to aerial seeding field sites, receiving free SARE cover crop resources and a boxed lunch along the way.
    4. Cover Crop Termination Webinar
      • On March 28th, 2016 the project partners will offer a Cover Crop Termination Strategies webinar as part of the annual MSU Extension Field Crops Webinar Series. Mike Plumer, formally with University of Illinois Extension, will present information on options for terminating various cover crop species and also contingency planning for unexpected circumstances related to weather, herbicide failures, etc. Currently, 81 participants have registered to participate in this webinar.
  • Recruit additional producers and aggregate acres to be seeded through a co-op style program

The opportunity to participate in aerial cover crop seeding was promoted among local corn and soybean producers through our Aerial Seeding Workshop in July, mailing of a promotional flier, a press release to local media and personal contacts by the project partners. Four growers signed-up to participate in addition to the four original grower collaborators (total of eight), seeding an additional 144 acres of oat-radish blend at $32/ac (seed and plane), 30 acres of cereal rye at $33.50/ac (seed and plane), and 67 acres of wheat at $30/ac (plane only).

  • Encourage participation in NRCS cost share programs for cover crops (EQIP and CSP)

NRCS cost share opportunities for cover crops available through the EQIP and CSP programs were presented by District Conservationist Perry Smeltzer at our Aerial Seeding Workshop in July and Field Tour in October. 83% (n=18) of respondents to our 2015 evaluation survey indicated that participation in our project increased their knowledge of NRCS cost share opportunities for cover crops. 23% (n=13) reported increasing their use of NRCS cost share opportunities as a result of our project.


  • Worked with agency partners, producers and service providers to aerially seed cover crops into 662 acres of corn and soybean in Northeast Lower Michigan.
    • Lowered costs for seeding $5-15 per acre by managing the program as a cooperative
  • Delivered three, plus one upcoming, outreach events to educate producers about soil health, cover crops, aerial interseeding and NRCS cost share opportunities.
  • Collected data from project field sites measuring:
    • Cover crop establishment
    • Fall biomass production
    • Cover crop tissue nitrogen concentration
  • Evaluated project outcomes with a comprehensive participant survey
  • Laid ground work for a sustainable cooperative aerial cover crop seeding program in Northeast Lower Michigan

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

13 producers, 5 public agency staff, and 1 agribusiness professional responded to our 2015 project evaluation survey. The respondents (84% male, 16% female, 100% Caucasian) reported managing or directly impacting 14,030 tillable acres in Northern Michigan. Of the 19 respondents 58% participated in our Aerial Seeding Workshop, 39% participated in our Aerial Seeding Field Tour and 37% participated in cooperative aerial seeding activities.

  • 83% (n=18) of respondents reported that participation in our project increased their knowledge of cover crops
  • 46% (n=13) of respondents reported that they increased their use of cover crops as a result of our project
  • Prior to initiation of our project in 2015, respondents reported planting an average of 86 acres to cover crops (1,375 acres total). In 2015, the average cover crop acreage per respondent increased to 108 acres (1,726 acres total).
  • 83% (n=18) of respondents reported that participation in our project increased their knowledge of aerial seeding technology
  • 44% (n=18) of respondents rated aerial seeding as a favorable method of cover crop establishment for Northeast Michigan
  • Respondents rated the performance of each cover crop-cash crop combination we trialed
    • Cereal rye into corn
      • Poor = 25%
      • Fair = 50%
      • Good = 25%
      • Excellent = 0%
    • Cereal rye/wheat into soybean
      • Poor = 0%
      • Fair = 13%
      • Good = 62%
      • Excellent = 25%
    • Oat-radish into corn
      • Poor = 11%
      • Fair = 56%
      • Good = 22%
      • Excellent = 11%
    • Oat-radish into soybean
      • Poor = 0%
      • Fair = 50%
      • Good = 50%
      • Excellent = 0%
  • Participant comments:
    • Aerial seeding is the only way for us to get cover crops in after soybeans. Already participating in NRCS programs for cover crops. Timing of seeding is a big factor. Having a solid plan for the next year after a fall cover crop is important to make the investment worthwhile.
    • Timing of aerial seeding could be adjusted.
    • Overall, a very useful program with lots of opportunity for the producers of NE Michigan.
    • Distribution of the oat-radish was somewhat uneven/light at the wooded field edges. This program gave us an opportunity to use a technology that we were interested in, but could not previously justify given our small acreage.
    • Aerial seeding was cost prohibitive.
    • Aerial seeding was done too early. Hard to fit cover crops in on clay ground that needs to be fall tilled for moisture management.
    • Tried cover crops, but does not fit current rotation and tillage practices.
    • Cereal rye after silage harvest has been more successful than the aerial seeding. Flying rye into/after silage might be successful.
    • Oat-radish stand was very uneven. Perhaps overlap areas did better. Plane was enjoyable to watch and the neighbors enjoyed it.
    • Harvest was difficult with rye in soybeans. Already enrolled in NRCS programs requiring 100ac in cover. Aerial seeding is cost prohibitive in our region.
    • Timing of rain after seeding is critical. Seeding rate too low for oat-radish. Is aerial seeding cost effective? Operation is too small to get NRCS points for cost share programs.
    • Timing is crucial for interseeding.


Aprille Williamson
Montmorency Conservation District
13210 M-33 PO Box 795
Atlanta, MI 49709
Office Phone: 9897854083
Ralph Stedman
Presque Isle Conservation District
658 S. Bradley Highway
Rogers City, MI 49779
Office Phone: 9897344000
Mike Brandt
21355 County Road 451
Hillman, MI 49746
Office Phone: 9893792020
Pam Troy
Alpena Conservation District
1900 M-32 West
Alpena, MI 49707
Office Phone: 9893563596
Perry Smeltzer
District Conservationist
NRCS Presque Isle, Montmorency and Alpena Counties
21090 M-68 Suite B
Onaway, MI 49765
Office Phone: 9897332694
Rob Erke
2364 E Ristow Hwy.
Rogers City, MI 49779
Office Phone: 9897343105
Chris Tulgestka
3115 Morrill Rd.
Rogers City, MI 49779
Office Phone: 9897342129
Waylon Smolinski
13843 Taylor Hawks Rd.
Lachine, MI 49753
Office Phone: 9897663530