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

2016 Annual Report for ONE16-282c

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

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


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.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.

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 (typical termination practice) 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.

Project educational activities will revolve around four events each in the spring and mid-summer, per year over two years, for 16 workshops total. 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. 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.


In the first four months of this project, several steps have been taken towards the performance target. The project team has met by phone to plan the details of the first steps of the project. The team leader, Nevin Dawson, has worked closely with the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project to recruit farmers for participation in their project, which is a prerequisite for participation in this SARE project. Dawson spoke at a recruitment program for farmers, contacted his farmer contacts across the state, and sent a broadcast text to all cover crop incentive program participants in Caroline County. These efforts resulted in 7 farmer recruits for the CIG project. Of the 11 total farmers recruited for the CIG project (several with multiple fields), the SARE project team will identify 4 to invite to participate as demonstration farmers for this SARE project. The project team will meet again by phone in January to select these four farmers based on their geographical location, their practices, and their likelihood of enthusiastic participation.

Substantial progress has also been made on the soil health self-evaluation tool. Dawson and Travis Martin have been working closely with the authors of “Soil Health in field and forage crop production,” Sjoerd Duiker, Lisa Blazure, and Joel Myers, to develop a draft of the tool. This sub-committee met by phone and in person to develop the set of multiple choice questions based on the 14 criteria for good soil health management described in the publication. The sub-committee also developed a corresponding scoring rubric that generates an overall soil health management score, as well as sub-scores for each of the 14 criteria. Users will also receive a report with a spiderweb (or radar) graph that will visually highlight areas of good management and areas with room for improvement. After some refinements, the tool will be ready for field testing in early 2017.

Soil Health Management Self-Evaluation (pg 1 of 2)

Soil Health Management Self-Evaluation (pg 2 of 2)

Soil Health Management Self-Evaluation Scoring key  

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The field portion of the project is still in the early stages, and therefore does not yet have any outcomes. The work on the self-evaluation portion of the project has served as the basis for a grant proposal submitted to the Northeast Extension Risk Management Education Program (funding status is pending). If accepted, the funding would allow for in-depth field testing across Maryland and Eastern Pennsylvania, as well as a series of educational workshops in Pennsylvania, beyond the series already funded by this SARE project.


Rachel Yeatman

Soil Conservationist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
105 Chesapeake Blvd.
Elkton, MD 21921-6376
Christy Brown
Conservation Agronomist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
John Hanson Business Center
339 Busch's Frontage Road, Suite 301
339 Busch's Frontage Road, Suite 301, Annapolis 21409-5543
Office Phone: 443-482-2936
John Johnson

Johnson Farm
1316 Quarry Road
Pylesville, MD 21132
Dawn Bradley
Cover Crop Program Administrator
Maryland Department of Agriculture
50 Harry S Truman Parkway
Annapolis, MD 21401
Ben Hushon
Mill Partner & Store Manager
The Mill
4551 Norrisville Rd
White Hall, MD 21161
Weida Stoecker
Agriculture Education Coordinator and Agriculture Outreach
Maryland Department of Agriculture
50 Harry S Truman Parkway
Annapolis, MD 21401
Travis Martin
Territory Representative
Dawn Biologic/DAWN Equipment Co.
370 N. Cross
PO Box 497
Sycamore, IL 60178
Ray Weil
University of Maryland
Department of Environmental Science and Technology
1119 H. J. Patterson Hall
College Park, MD 20742
Steven Mirsky
Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory
USDA Agricultural Research Service
BLDG 001 BARC-West
Beltsville, MD 20705-2350
Michel Cavigelli
Soil Scientist
USDA Agricultural Research Service
BLDG 001 BARC-West
Beltsville, MD 20705-2350
Nate Richards
Faculty Extension Assistant
University of Maryland Extension
709 Morgnec Road, Ste. #202
Chestertown, MD 21620