Promoting cover crops on grain and vegetable farms in Pennsylvania

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $11,111.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Penn State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Dr. Sjoerd Duiker
Penn State University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, rye, soybeans
  • Vegetables: tomatoes


  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension

    Proposal abstract:

    Cover crops are being promoted because they improve soil organic matter content and soil biological activity, reduce soil erosion, soil compaction, and nutrient leaching. In this outreach project, we will focus on promoting cover crop use on vegetable and grain farms in Pennsylvania.

    Much of our recent cover crop research and outreach has focused on dairy farms, and the adoption of cover crops on these farms has been amazing (Hively et al., 2015). One reason we believe adoption has been fast on dairy farms is because the cover crops can often be used for forage. In addition, they are a good place to spread manure. Further, there are good windows to establish cover crops on dairy farms, such as after corn silage.

    On vegetable and grain farms, cover crop uses don’t include forage and manure application, and establishment windows may be smaller, so cover crops may be a more difficult sell because benefits may be less immediate than for dairy farmers and challenges for establishment greater. Although there is a lack of statistics, casual observations suggest cover crop use is very limited on vegetable and grain farms. On vegetable farms, cover crops, or soil management for improved soil health in general, have not received as much attention. The emphasis has been on other management techniques to increase yield, improve timeliness of production (such as plasticulture), or reduce losses by pests and diseases (usually using pesticides). However, there may good establishment windows for cover crops in vegetable rotations, and the need to improve soil health is great. Common grain crop rotations provide few options to establish cover crops on time before the onset of the winter (e.g. corn-soybean rotations or corn-wheat-double-cropped soybean rotations). In addition, there has not been a large recognition for the need for cover crops. Increasingly, however, there are observations suggesting soil health in grain crops is poor. This is even the case in no-till grain crops, where significant soil erosion is being recognized as a threat due to poor residue cover after soybeans and poor surface soil structure.  These are the challenges we plan to address in this project.

    The opportunities are many. In vegetable rotations, windows for cover crop establishment are many. It is probably the benefits and management of cover crops that need to be highlighted and addressed. In grain rotations, new technologies have come on line recently for in-crop establishment of cover crops using inter-seeding technology, and new techniques for planting into living cover crops before termination (Planting Green). In this project we will be promoting the use of cover crops on Pennsylvania vegetable and grain farms and educating farmers about these new opportunities and techniques.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The objective of this project is to promote the use of cover crops on Pennsylvania vegetable and grain farms by educating farmers about the benefits and management of cover crops in vegetable rotations, and new opportunities and techniques for grain crops including  in-crop establishment of cover crops using inter-seeding technology, and new techniques for planting into living cover crops before termination (Planting Green).

    Four on-farm demonstrations are planned - three will be on working farms (2 vegetable and 1 grain) and one on the Penn State Horticultural Research Farm.

    The first demonstration will be at the farm of Jeff Frey and will demonstrate namely interseeding a cover crop of rye into standing double cropped soybeans. The soybeans will be planted after wheat with a planter on 30” row spacing. The rye will be interseeded with the Penn State Interseeder or with Jeff’s own equipment this fall and a field day will be organized there in the spring of 2017.

    The second demonstration trial will be at the farm of Sean McDermott. He has a cover crop of rye which will be rolled down and vegetables will be no-till transplanted into it. Sean is interested in this practice but doesn’t have any experience with it.

    The third demonstration trial will take place at Nolan Masser’s Red Hill Farms LLC near Pitman in Northumberland County and will involve no-till potato and cabbage production in rolled rye cover crop. Crop Consultant Gerard Troisi will oversee this and produce a video clip of this practice.

    The fourth demonstration trial will be on the Penn State Horticultural Research Farm in Centre County and will involve no-till transplanting different vegetable crops into a rolled cover crop of rye. The demonstrations at the 3 working farms will be whole field or strips (with/without cover crop) but the demonstrations at Penn State will be small plots with 4 replications. Rye cover crops will be established in September/October with a drill or broadcast, except if interseeded in double cropped soybeans which will most likely be in August with an interseeder.  

    Cover crop biomass will be collected on all sites, and yield of double-cropped soybeans or the crops planted into the cover crops will be evaluated. The soybean yield will be compared with a strip without cover crop, the vegetables by number, the potatoes by weight, and the vegetables at the research farm by number/weight/quality (details of this trial still need to be worked out with the horticultural specialist). Participating farmers will receive advice by the consultants or extension personnel with cover crop and economic crop management.

    Educational activities will consist of the following:

    • Three field days at demonstration farms. The field day at Jeff Frey will be focused on interseeding cover crop into double-cropped soybeans. The second field day will be at the farm of Sean McDermott and will include a demonstration of a cover crop roller and observation of the vegetables no-till transplanted into the rolled cover crop. The third field day will be at Red Hill Farms in Northumberland County and will involve demonstration and observations of no-till potato and cabbage into rolled cover crop.
    • Monthly farmer meetings next to Jeff Frey’s farm in Willow Street. This is an initiative of Jeff Frey. He meets monthly with local farmers in a workshop next to his farm where suitable meeting facilities are available. Cover crops will be a topic at these monthly meetings.
    • Field day at the PSU Horticultural Research Farm. We will demonstrate no-till transplanted vegetable crops at this event in summer of 2017.
    • Presentations at Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Field Day and at PASA’s 3rd Annual Summer Conference (dates as yet unknown).
    • Four presentations at winter meetings. Venues still remain to be determined, but will include the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention and the Annual Conference of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance and possibly the PASA Annual Conference in January or February 2017.
    • 6 articles on aspects of cover crops in grain and vegetable production to be published in Penn State’s Field Crop News and in the Vegetable and Small Fruit Gazette.
    • Three 5 minute video clips posted on the internet – one on interseeding, one on no-till transplanting vegetables and one on no-till potatoes.
    • Two consultants (Steve Groff and Gladis Zinati) will coach several beginning cover crop users on a one-on-one basis to help them adopt cover cropping as part of their rotation.
    • Cover crop seed will be distributed on a trial basis. We will distribute 5 bags of triticale seed to 15 different grain farmers (total 75 bags of 50 lbs) in the fall of 2016. We will distribute one bag of oat/radish mix to 20 vegetable farmers (total 20 bags of 50 lbs). These grain and vegetable farmers will be given a record keeping sheet that they will be required to return to the project direction so their experiences and observations can be used for educational purposes.
    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.