North Central SARE From the Field Profile
Outreach Effort in MN and IA Promotes Cover Crop Adoption
Sarah Carlson, Project Coordinator and Research and Policy Director at Practical Farmers of Iowa, is an agronomist who conducted on-farm research for her master’s thesis with several farmers. Practical Farmers of Iowa has been conducting on-farm research within their membership on cover crops since 1987.
Linda Meschke, project participant and Executive Director of Rural Advantage, learned about cover crops at an early age. Her father used cover crops on their beef farm in northern MN when establishing alfalfa or hay crops. In her adult life, Meschke covered the topic of cover crops as the Vocational Agriculture Instructor at Fairmont, MN schools despite the limited adoption in the area at that time. Rural Advantage supports sustainable agriculture initiatives that help to advance adoption and farmer learning about forward thinking agriculture practices through their third crop initiative.
“Agricultural nonpoint source pollution is one of the biggest challenges we are facing in the Midwest,” explained Meschke. “Integrating cover crops into the cropping system can have significant impact on reducing soil, nitrogen, or phosphorous losses. In addition, cover crops can provide multiple other benefits, including building soil health, providing wildlife habitat, and reducing water flow off the landscape.”
Practical Farmers of Iowa and Rural Advantage wanted to partner to disseminate information to farmers and key participants through farmer field schools utilizing hands-on experience, crop field days, and workshops to tell neighbors about cover crops. They also wanted to help build farmers’ knowledge by creating a cover crops decision-making tool which could provide information for farmers in the entire North Central region. In 2009, the team submitted a proposal for an NCR-SARE Research and Education Grant program and was awarded $174,296.
“SARE has a long history with cover crops,” said Carlson. “Many research projects have been conducted, but a campaign for increasing the visibility of that research seemed necessary. NCR-SARE seemed like the perfect funder for this type of research.”
The project began in 2009, and the outreach is resulting in more landowners understanding the multiple benefits of installing these conservation practices. For instance, the team is actively working with airplane pilots who want to aerial-seed cover crops before crops are harvested.
“This has greatly freed up farmers time in the fall to get cover crops seeded and the airplane pilots are now beginning to transfer knowledge between each other on how to successfully plant cover crops using planes,” explained Carlson. “ We have polled the pilots in the state of IA and surrounding states and are creating a cover crop business directory listing seedhouses, pilots and custom sprayers who can help farmers get this practice done.”
According to Carlson, the major outputs of this project will be farmer to farmer learning, on-farm cover crop demonstration, and outreach to increase the base knowledge levels of cover crops with farmers and resource agency staff in MN and IA. The goal is to use annual surveys to attempt to find the number of acres of cover crops planted directly due to our outreach efforts as well as the changes made by those already utilizing cover crops. The team believes that their method of having farmers to talk to each other at field days and conference workshops ensures that the knowledge being shared is as practical as possible.
"Cover crops are one piece of the puzzle to encourage 2-year row crop farmers to begin moving toward a longer rotation," said Carlson. “It also helps our more experienced farmers try very out of the box research projects and provide practical information for those farmers interested in going beyond the standard winter rye added to a corn or soybean system.”
Several fact sheets about cover crops have been developed along with this project. Follow the project link below to access the fact sheets and more information about this grant project.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) LNC09-313, Farmer Field School Approach to Increasing Cover Crop Adoption in Iowa and Minnesota.
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These products were developed with support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed within these products do not necessarily reflect the view of the SARE program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.