West Virginia 2016 cover crop initiative for promoting soil health

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $11,107.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University Extension Service
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Thomas Basden
West Virginia University Extension Service

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans
  • Vegetables: beans, peppers, tomatoes
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Crop Production: cover crops, no-till, nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed
  • Soil Management: general soil management

    Proposal abstract:

    Initial outreach efforts in West Virginia (WV) have sought to demonstrate the use of cover crops for good soil health to increase yields, profitability and water quality benefits. Despite this, most specialty and commodity crop producers in West Virginia have not successfully adopted cover cropping as a Best Management Practice. Crop producers in WV are typically a diverse mix of small commodity crop farms, or specialty crops producers using permanent raised beds for high-tunnel or open field production.  In an effort to serve the diverse cropping landscape in WV, the WV participants of the March 2016 Cover Crop Conference will conduct field trials, field demonstrations, and accompanying farmer field days on vegetable and commodity grain enterprises to help increase awareness, understanding, and adoption of cover crops as part of the cropping systems to improve soil health. This initiative has two parts – Evaluating and Demonstrating Cover Crops for:

    • Crop Production on a Conventional Commodity Crop Farm and an Organic Dairy; and
    • Specialty Crop Production (Permanent Raised Beds for High Tunnels and Open-Field Systems


    Numerous studies have shown benefits from the adoption of conservation tillage practices on soil health indices.  The adoption of no till and minimum till by the farming community is an ongoing process that needs to be combined with cover cropping. Cover crops have also been shown to provide increased soil attributes including, nutrient cycling, nitrogen availability, soil carbon and microbial effects. This project will demonstrate the successful integration of combine cover crop utilization with minimum or no till cropping systems to commodity and highly diversified farms in Appalachia. 

    Cover crop use by the WV farming community has increased predominantly in the Chesapeake Bay watershed area due to increased conservation practice adoption.  WV farmers in the Eastern Panhandle (Bay Watershed) has been interested and willing to add cover crops to their cropping systems.  We are confident that the Western area of WV, (none Bay Watershed) are equally willing to increase their adoption of cover crops – the 2014 WV Sustainable Agriculture Needs Assessments identified ‘soil health, conservation and management’ as one of the top five priority outreach areas; the Tygart Valley Growers Association (TVGA), was surveyed in 2012, and members expressed interest in integrating cover crops in their crop rotations. To this end, we will primarily focus on the Western area of WV because the Bay area farmers have ongoing cover crop programs and demonstrations occurring.  Adoption of cover crops with the added conservation effects of minimum or no-till using roller crimping tools has the potential to be adopted by a wide variety of farmers. 

    In WV, most annual vegetable crops are produced either with plasticulture systems using raised beds covered with plastic mulch or bare ground with repeated tillage. Raised beds overseeded with cover crops can reduce the need for repeated tillage as well as reducing soil erosion, compaction and improving soil health.  Raised beds facilitate soil drainage and harvest while the cover crops can reduce soil moisture evaporation, weed emergence, while providing nitrogen and improving overall soil health. Since 2009, approximately 500 new high tunnels have been constructed in WV. The soil within high tunnels is highly sensitive to degradation due to intensive use of the soil, lack of crop rotations, high temperatures favoring organic matter decomposition and intensive traffic in the tunnel.  Soil health is critical due to the premium value of space in the high tunnel. We have evaluated specific winter cover crop species within high tunnels as part of a previously funded NRCS-CIG grant and have identified significant benefits of green manure winter cover crops for soil health.  However, warm season cover crops within high tunnels have not been extensively evaluated either as green manure or high residue crops for no-till summer/fall vegetable production within high tunnels.  In addition, both cool and warm season cover crop species have not been evaluated in a permanent bed planting system in WV.     

    Project objectives from proposal:

    With this project, we are attempting to evaluate winter and summer cover crops established on permanent beds for open-field and protected culture specialty crop production systems in WV. On commodity grain farms, we are interested in comparing rolled green cover crop versus standing cover crop with corn and soybean production. 

    Project Activities

    We plan to demonstrate the use of the Roller Crimper Technology on three farms.

    • The Commodity Grain Farm: We will establish a replicated cover crop trial that includes a mix of annual ryegrass and crimson clover using the roller crimper to lay over 40 foot strips of cover crop leaving 40ft. Sections between the rolled areas of unrolled cover crop.  This will be done when the cover crop is green, not mature and then a herbicide will terminate the cover crop and corn will be planted.  These treatments will be replicated 4 times side by side, in a single field.  Treatments (rolled and unrolled cover crops) will be evaluated for to variables. Weed counts at canopy close will be collected and corn yield (determined with combine yield monitor). The farmers combine has a 30ft. head, so the harvest area from the treatments will be from the inner part of the 40 foot rolled and unrolled plots.  The farmer will provide all field operations including corn planting, rolling and crimping the cover crops and will collect yield data during harvest.  
    • The Organic Dairy: We are planning to establish a replicated trial planting hairy vetch with a conventional drill in the fall. Cover crop termination methods will include using the roller crimper on a field with an oat/vetch cover crop that will have strips rolled and crimped and alternating strips tilled in as a green manure crop. These treatments will be replicated 4 times side by side, in a single field.   Weed counts at canopy close and corn yield will be determined.   The farmer will provide all field operations including the planting of the cover crops, tillage operations to incorporate the green manure, and rolling/crimping the vetch/oats cover crop.
    • The Vegetable Producer: This project will evaluate and demonstrate the use of cover crops including a commercial mix of triticale/tillage radish/annual rye/crimson clover and summer cover crops including sun hemp and sudex.in a permanent bed system for annual vegetable crops in the open field and within a high tunnel over a two year period. Like many producers wishing to use organic methods, they would like to reduce the use of short-term plastic mulches and the need for repeated tillage. Trials will be replicated on permanent beds in strips, with each strip or linear row serving as a replication. Beginning in 2016, we will evaluate a single cool season and warm season cover crop mixture for use in a permanent raised bed system for a cool and warm season cash crop rotation.  We will follow the methodology of Jean-Martin Fourtier, a successful organic producer, for creating the permanent raised beds. 

    Outreach Activities

    One or more educational events will accompany each of the demonstration/trials conducted on the three different farms during the fall of the second year of the grant period, to discuss results from two years of trials and bring a group of farmers out to see the early establishment of fall cover crop plantings.  On the grain and silage farms, we will present two years of plot data from the demonstrations comparing the treatments at each farm. Those treatments rolled/crimped versus green manure hairy vetch or rolled versus killed standing annual rye crimson clover are described above.  Outreach events at the vegetable trials will demonstrate how the cover crops are seeded, terminated and planted with a succeeding cash crop.  We will demonstrate equipment (rollers, transplanters, seeders) to the attendees.  At least every 4 months we will have an  outreach event at the host farm.

    Throughout the course of the project we will document cover crop production practices through videos and digital images, and fact sheets or case study report will be developed. Field days will be widely distributed in the south-west WV in Mason County, south-east WV in Greenbrier County and north central WV, to allow for recruitment of interested farmers in each respective geographic area.  Field day promotion will be a multi-agency effort including WV Soil Conservation Districts, NRCS field offices, WVU extension service and WV Farm Bureau.  The cooperating farmers at each demonstration site will be encouraged to present the planned and recent changes to their farming operations because of the cover crop demonstrations and adding cover crops to their field rotations. 

    All WVU extension programing is expected to have an evaluation component, including survey instruments. Attending farmers will be contacted after the educational programs to determine acres of planted cover crops.   We anticipate at least 50 attendees at each field day event and at least 10% of the attendees will adopt cover crops for their field and high tunnel production of specialty crops.

    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.