Increasing cover crop adoption through farmer peer-to-peer support

Project Overview

ONE16-284c
Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $10,083.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Carl Majewski
UNH Cooperative Extension

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn
  • Vegetables: beans, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, greens (leafy), peas (culinary), peppers, cucurbits, sweet corn, tomatoes
  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    There has been a marked increase in the use of cover crops in recent years. Farmers with a wide variety of cropping systems, and at a range of scales, are increasingly using cover crops in ways that enable them to achieve soil conservation goals while maintaining or improving crop yields. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 5025 acres were planted to cover crops; according to NH NRCS, farmers took advantage of aerial cover crop seeding programs to sow cover crops on some 3500 acres of cropland in 2015, more than triple the acreage of the previous year. However, this is still only a fraction of the more than 15,000 acres devoted to the production of field crops and vegetables statewide. There are still many opportunities for farmers to make better use of cover crops to reduce soil erosion and conserve nutrients.

    There can significant hurdles to integrating cover crops into rotations. For example, some benefits of cover crops only become apparent after several seasons, when improved soil structure, reduced erosion, and conserved nutrients and organic matter results in better crop yields. Some producers perceive the cost of seed and labor for establishing cover crops to exceed the benefits, or that their use comes at the expense of crop yields. Even producers who are more motivated to experiment with and make greater use of cover crops face challenges. Farms select species from dozens of options and employ new or unfamiliar planting practices, and they may need equipment that isn’t easily available to them. Making the wrong choice with anything from selecting the wrong species to improperly terminating a stand may yield poor results and discourage further experimentation.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The overall goal for the New Hampshire Cover Crop Team’s activities is to encourage adoption through peer-to-peer interaction and support. We hope to continue the conversation that has begun about cover crops by highlighting examples where they have been used successfully. We will achieve this by providing opportunities for farmers to make direct observations in the field and to exchange dialogue with others who have found ways to make cover cropping work in this state.

    We intend to recruit other farms to partner with us for educational activities. While we are primarily looking to highlight farms that use innovative cover crop species or planting practices, we also want to include a variety of production systems, including both field crops and horticultural crops; both conventional and organic management systems.

    Cover Crop Forums and Field Meetings

    We propose organizing two statewide Cover Crop Forums, in fall of 2016 and 2017. These events will be day-long, indoor programs where participants will have the opportunity to learn from their peers. They will feature informal presentations by area farmers (primarily, but not limited to, those listed above who have experimented with or gained experience with establishing cover crops with innovative use of equipment, new species, or planting techniques. We will devote at least half of the program to a facilitated farmer-to-farmer discussion, where participants will have the opportunity both to ask questions of their peers, and to share their own experiences in order to help provide solutions that enable more widespread use of cover crops. In order for farmers to direct the discussion around issues relating to their individual cropping systems, we will have breakout sessions at each forum focusing on both vegetable and dairy/livestock production, and we will discuss management practices appropriate to both conventional and organic systems.

    Between fall 2016 and fall 2018, we will hold eight smaller scale field meetings in various locations around the state. These sessions will be held at the cooperating farms listed above and will highlight specific practices and techniques pertaining to the use of cover crops. Where possible, we will coordinate these events to highlight demonstrations of seeding methods and evaluations of various cover crop seed mixes organized by NRCS, UNH Cooperative Extension, and Conservation Districts already taking place around the state. Like the forums, we will emphasize peer-to-peer learning by providing time for participants both to ask questions and to contribute their own observations and experiences to the conversation. Because these field meetings are likely to be smaller-scale with fewer participants attending each event, however, we hope they will allow for more in-depth discussion regarding specific issues related to equipment, cover crop species, or methods of integrating cover crops into cropping systems.

    On three sites where field meetings will be held in 2017 we will establish small field-scale (1-2 acre)  plots with side-by-side comparisons  to highlight issues of concern to farmers in the state and to demonstrate practices already known to be successful but that have not yet been widely adopted. Participating farms will be given their choice of the following demonstration trial options:

    • Comparing spring residue with a 50/50 mix of oats and winter rye vs. winter rye planted alone, sown in the fall post-harvest of field corn
    • Evaluating biomass and nitrogen contributions of cover crop mixes consisting of red clover or hairy vetch combined with daikon radish interseeded during the growing season in either field corn, sweet corn, or vine crops.

    The NH cover crop team, working with the participating farm, will collect such data as fall and spring residue cover (as measured by the Canopeo app), biomass, and will take soil samples for fertility analysis and to measure mid-season soil nitrate levels. Visual observations and data collected from the demonstrations will be shared at the on-site field days at these sites, at the Forums, and – where appropriate – in the video series.

    Based on attendance at previous programs focusing on cover crops and soil health, we expect 80 producers to participate in these forums, plus perhaps 30 service providers from NRCS, Conservation Districts, Extension, and private industry. We anticipate an additional 150 participants attending field meetings. We plan to advertise through social media, Extension and Conservation District newsletters, statewide publications such as the NH Weekly Market Bulletin, and via direct mailing.

    Participation by farmers with experience using cover crops is crucial to the success of these events. The NH Cover Crops Team will identify producers who would be willing to share their experience (including the two team members who are farmers). We plan to include producers with experience in a range of cropping systems and at a range of scales.

    Cover Crop Video Series

    We will produce a total of six short (approximately 5-10 minutes long) videos that cover the same innovative planting and management practices highlighted at the field meetings. These will be filmed primarily at the farms listed above, separate from the field meetings themselves and at different intervals over the growing season. The videos will show the progression from planting cover crops through terminating the stand, and they will feature interviews with the farmers that highlight innovative uses of equipment, crop rotations, species, or planting practices. We will gather footage from summer 2016 through spring 2018, so that the series would be complete by the end of 2018.

    We intend these videos to serve as a sort of ‘virtual tour’ for those who want to learn more about successful use of cover crops in New Hampshire but who may not have been able to participate in the field meetings at these sites. Additionally, they may serve as a sort of quick reference for farmers looking for information about specific planting and management techniques.

    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.