Changing the mindset of Maryland cover crop farmers through delayed spring burn-down

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $11,102.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: University of Maryland
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Nevin Dawson
University of Maryland Extension

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, rye, soybeans


  • Crop Production: continuous cropping, cover crops, crop rotation, double cropping, intercropping, nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: green manures, nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil physics, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Maryland has the distinction of being the only state in the country to offer an incentive program for planting cover crops. With funding from Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program (MACS), this program pays farmers between $25 and $75/acre to plant cover crops, which can add up to a lucrative winter enterprise. Of the almost half a million acres spring certified in cover crops under the program in fall of 2014, 65% (306,996 acres) were planted with a single variety of grass. MACS funds this incentive program because cover crops scavenge nitrogen in the winter that would otherwise leach away from the field and eventually enter the Chesapeake Bay estuary, leading to a variety of water quality problems. Grass cover crops are the most effective in scavenging nitrogen and therefore qualify for the highest incentive payment rates.  In order to qualify for the payment, cover crops must be planted by a certain date (with a bonus payment for an earlier date), and maintained until March 1 of the following year, at which point they may be killed. Many program participants kill their cover crops soon after the March 1 threshold, even though farmers may wait as long as June 1 and still comply with the program. The reasons are two-fold: they don’t want the cover crops to grow to the point at which they will interfere with their planting operation, and/or they assume that they’ve already received the maximum agronomic benefit from the cover crops and that there is no benefit to allowing them to grow further. Unfortunately, both lines of thinking are incorrect. Most recent model planters can easily handle up to several additional weeks of grass cover crop growth, and there are several substantial benefits still to be had from as few as two more weeks of growth. These include moisture retention during dry spells, increased organic matter with its suite of services, increased root action contributions like reducing compaction and increasing infiltration, and an increase in the amount of N retained in the soil profile (Teasdale and Mirsky, accepted; Mirsky et al., 2013; Nord et al., 2012; Nord et al., 2011; Ryan et al., 2011; Clark et al., 1997). Therefore, a large number of farmers, farm acres, and watersheds would benefit from the potential yield boost and reduction in leached nutrients available from delayed spring cover crop burndown. This project will address this incremental step in ushering Maryland’s farmers toward greater understanding, appreciation, and adoption of advanced cover crop practices. Through a program of extension and outreach demonstrations, activities, and materials, this project will help farmers see first-hand the benefits of allowing cover crop rye and other grasses to grow past the program minimum kill date. One of the primary project goals is to change the mindset of farmers who currently view winter cover crops only as a source of reliable income, courtesy of the incentive program, instead of as a valuable tool for increasing the yield of their cash crops in the following season and later years. This project will help farmers see the many short-term and long-term agronomic benefits of keeping cover crops in the ground for as long as possible. The earliest and most tangible of these is likely to be soil moisture retention resulting from the mulch effect of the increased grass residue, which creates a moisture barrier on the soil surface. In the hottest and driest part of the summer, areas with longer-growing cover crops should show much more vigor than areas with shorter-growing cover crops. We will take advantage of the opportunity to educate project participants about the many other benefits of cover crops, helping them see cover crops as a tool for improving soil health and long term cash crop yields. This project will benefit any farmer currently planting pure grass cover crops under the Maryland cover crop incentive program, including those farming the 306,996 acres planted in pure grass covers in 2014 and burned down in 2015. Maryland feed corn and soybeans represent 954,000 acres, 68% of Maryland’s 1.4 million acres of cropland. Soybeans alone are grown on more than 2,800 farms. These numbers include the fairly small percentage of acres in Maryland that are still routinely bare in the winter. This group is an important but secondary target of this project. There is a small but growing group of innovative and responsible farmers who are interested and excited about what cover crops have to offer. This project will identify one or more farmers in each of Maryland’s four regions to serve as leaders by example. These farmers will have operations representative of the typical farm in their region, primarily with a corn and soybean rotation.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project will identify one farmer in the geographical center of each of four regions where grain production is prevalent: West Central (Frederick or Carroll Counties), Southern (Prince George’s or Anne Arundel counties), the Upper Shore (Cecil or Kent counties) and the Lower Shore (Dorchester, Talbot, or Caroline counties) to serve as leaders by example. These farmers will have conventional operations representative of the typical grain farm in their region, primarily with a corn and soybean rotation. One of the Eastern Shore demonstration sites will have poultry litter application in its management regime. Farmers currently practicing early kill will be preferred so that they can provide feedback on how the changes worked for them. Recruitment of demonstration farmers will be conducted in partnership with Steve Mirsky (USDA ARS), who is beginning a large cover crop NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project that will require at least 15 farmer cooperators in Maryland.

    Each farmer will agree to establish one demonstration field in each year of the two year project. The second year field may be in a different location from the first year field. Demonstration fields will be at least 5 acres in size. Farmers will establish strips in the demonstration fields: at least three replicates of one control and two treatment strips, for a minimum of nine strips total. Strips will be as wide as the spray boom used by the farmer. The control strips will be sprayed between March 1 and April 15 of 2017 and 2018. One treatment will be the absence of cover crops, as required by the CIG project experimental design. The other treatment will be the delayed burndown of the grass cover crop, sprayed any time after May 1, which is outside of the scope of the CIG project. Mirsky will assess each farmer’s planter and make a recommendation for the termination date based on the available planting technology. Each field will be planted on the date the farmer would normally choose with the planter the farmer would normally use, in both the control and treatment strips. A standardized planting date across all four demo sites is not possible due to wide weather and climatic differences across the state. Allowing demo farmers to use standard planting equipment is an essential part of the project’s message, which is that delayed burndown can be implemented without any additional investment in new equipment. The farmers will implement the procedures with support from the project team in demo site establishment, including field selection and developing an agreement with their custom spray operator if necessary. Mirsky will collect a variety of data as part of the CIG grant, and will share data and results with this project as they become available. The project team will engage the local Soil Conservation District and NRCS office, and ask for assistance with event marketing and photo documentation comparing the three treatments throughout the growing season.

    Farmers will receive a $500/year stipend to compensate them for the additional time required to establish the demonstration field and to offset any perceived risk in trying a new practice. Ideal cooperators will have a high level of interest and a location central to the region.

    Project educational activities will revolve around four events each in the spring and mid-summer, per year over two years, for 16 workshops total. Spring planting demos will take place during planting season, and will feature a demonstration of the planter working in the demonstration field with the taller grass cover residue. Farmers are busy at this time of year, so events will be short and simple. Mid-summer field days will take place during the hottest and driest conditions, which are most likely to show a visible difference between the control and treatment strips. As farmers are more likely to be available for the summer field days, these events will be larger with multiple speakers and in-depth information on a variety of cover crop practices, including data from the related Mirsky and Weil cover crop projects. Farmer cooperators will be expected to attend and speak at their respective events, and run their planting equipment at the spring events. Each field day is expected to attract an average of 30 farmers, for a total of 480 farmers. It is hoped that many of the participants from the spring planting demos will return to see the results at the mid-summer field days. Participants will be recruited through notices in the local agricultural newspapers, UMD Extension newsletters, NRCS/Soil Conservation announcements, and listservs like NewAgTalk. Perdue and other agri-businesses will be approached as potential partners. Maryland NRCS has soil health program funding available to offset some of the costs associated with the field events, at least through the end of 2017.

    An informal video of the planting and the mid-summer results will be developed, posted on YouTube, shared through social media sites, and posted on the UMD Extension Soil Health webpage. NRCS public relations staff may be available to assist with video production. A brief fact sheet will also be developed with photos and project results.

    In addition to the field days, demonstration farmers will be encouraged to speak about their successes and challenges with their informal network of farmer contacts.

    All field day participants will be asked to complete a very short survey a number of times. Survey questions will ask if it’s their first time participating in the project, and if not, how long ago they first participated. In this way, a single survey instrument will be able to assess how awareness, attitudes, and behavior change over time. Participants will be asked to take the survey before each field day, after each field day, in December 2017 to assess their intention to try delaying cover crop burndown, in June 2018 to assess actual implementation of a new practice, and in December 2018 to measure intent to continue, start, or discontinue a new practice. Anecdotal statements will also be collected from the 4 demonstration farmers through phone interviews.

    A separate self-assessment tool will be developed to assist farmers in determining where they are on the continuum of overall soil health practices. The tool will be based on the recent publication, “Soil Health in Field and Forage Crop Production,” by Sjoerd Duiker et al. This publication will also be distributed at all events.

    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.