Farmers’ Evaluation of Cover Crop Effects on Sandy Soils in the Suwannee River Basin in North Florida

Project Overview

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2017: $14,744.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: University of Florida
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Kevin Athearn
University of Florida


Not commodity specific


  • Crop Production: cover crops

    Proposal abstract:

    The Suwannee River Water Management District encompasses portions of 15 counties in North Florida. With concentrated production over time in cattle, timber, hogs, tobacco, soybean, corn and now peanuts, the cropping system has evolved significantly over the past 50 years. Each transition took time and considerable retooling to accommodate the supply chain. Commodity prices for corn, peanuts, and soybean are at historic lows. Combined with the unpredictable cycles of boom and bust, the economic sustainability of row crops is threatened.

    Farming here is characterized by widespread use of center pivots and monoculture plantings of corn and peanuts totaling over 125,000 acres (USDA 2012). Less intensively managed pastures and pine plantations account for the balance. What distinguishes the area is its sandy ultisol and entisol soils perched over karst calciferous topography; inherently low in soil organic matter, cation exchange capacity, water holding capacity and grain yields. Coarse soils are rapidly draining, which further limits the efficiency of water and nutrient uptake. To be profitable now requires continuous irrigation, prescriptive fungicides, and aggressive insecticidal plans. Furthermore, excessive tillage simultaneously degrades the soil and depletes farmers' financial resources.

    So although previous SARE awards showed increase in the number of farms with a working knowledge of cover crops, few Florida peanut and corn farmers have adopted them. The recent National Cover Crop Survey records low adoption of cover crops in Florida for many reasons including limited advisory support, farmer mentoring, and production data. Despite numerous benefits described in the literature, the rate of Florida cover crop adoption is among the lowest in the nation. From a public perspective, the known benefits are widespread, including reduced nitrate leaching, improved water quality and soil health. From the private perspective, benefits include higher economic returns through improved cash crop yields, lower input costs from nematode and weed suppression, and reduced irrigation requirements. Low cover crop adoption rates inherently jeopardize the sustainability of agriculture in the area through lost opportunity for conservation and possibly less economic resilience.

    Increasing knowledge of and outreach on cover crops will address the problems of poor soil health, limited information, and low cover crop acreage. Building off of previous SARE projects, we will utilize these findings and experience gained. A Discovery Farms approach will be used to facilitate farmer participation in both determining the priority issues and species mixtures for their farms.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Collaborate with farmers to better understand their challenges and logistics of adoption.
    2. Test cover crops on-farm using measurements specific to their desired outcome.
    3. Create outreach materials and venues for sharing specifics on cover crop economics, planting and benefit.
    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.