Upcoming FARMINARS: Cover Crops and Wildlife + Economics of Cover Crops
PFI is excited to host two webinars for the National Wildlife Federation to share early results from projects they funded starting in 2013 focused on the specific topic areas of wildlife and economics/agronomy. Join in live or watch the archived version once we post it shortly after the live webinar. Read brief results of the projects below.
June 22, 2015 | 11:00noon to 12:30pm central
Cover Crops and Wildlife Habitat
- Effect of Diverse Cover Crops on Insects and Wildlife
Ray Wright, University of Missouri
- Impact of Cover Crops on Bird, Insect and Amphibian Diversity
Robert Brodman, St. Joseph’s College and Daniel Perkins, Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District
July 20, 2015 | 11:00noon to 12:30pm central
The Economics of Cover Crops
- Quantifying nitrogen scavenging benefits of non-traditional fall planted cover crops to mitigate nitrogen movement in the Mississippi River Basin
Dr. Ajay Nair, Iowa State University
- Economic Impact of Cover Crop Seed Sales in Illinois
Dr. Xiaolan Liu and Fred Iutzi, Western Illinoi University
- Using simple field tests for soil quality to determine the impacts of cover crops and management practices on soil quality, and to provide information to help promote those practices at a wider scale in the Indian Creek watershed
Chad Watts, CTIC
Both webinars are free and open to the public. Each webinar is 90 minutes; 60 minutes for presentations from researchers and 30 minutes of Q&A. To join the webinars, visit practicalfarmers.org/farminars and click the “Join In” button, then select “Enter as a Guest.”
Until then, enjoy PFI’s Farminar Archive, “a trove of information on topics from production and business planning to marketing and labor management, and across agricultural enterprises.”
Summary of Research Grant Preliminary Report Findings
Quantifying nitrogen scavenging benefits of non-traditional fall planted cover crops to mitigate nitrogen movement in the Mississippi River Basin
Dr. Ajay Nair, Iowa State University
Soils in Muscatine County, Iowa, due to their sandy texture, are prone to erosion and leaching. In the fall, leftover fertilizer applied to the corn and soybean crop is highly susceptible to leaching and erosion. Cover crops have been widely acclaimed to mitigate such issues as they prevent erosion and scavenge residual nitrogen. Although these attributes are widely known, adoption of cover crops has been slow. Information on cover crop planting dates, performance, and advantages are available, but very little data is available that is applicable to Iowa growing conditions. In addition, most of the data available is for cover crops such as cereal rye, wheat, triticale, and annual ryegrass. More precise and region specific information is needed for non- traditional cover crops such as brassicas and mustards which have the potential to scavenge residual nitrogen and reduce nitrogen movement in to the Mississippi river basin.
Growers in Iowa are interested in integrating cover crops that are quick growing and are short duration for example oilseed radish, and yellow mustard but lack knowledge, expertise, and information on those cover crops. Moreover, information that exists on these cover crops has been mainly developed in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Iowa producers need research- based information that will facilitate their understanding of those cover crops under Iowa growing conditions. There is also a need to better quantify benefits of those cover crops. For example if a grower is utilizing a brassica cover crop (oilseed radish, yellow mustard, etc.) to scavenge residual nitrogen after a corn or soybean crop, he/she should be able to estimate the amount of nitrogen scavenged and assign a dollar value to the benefit achieved using those cover crops. In addition to the nitrogen scavenging benefits, brassica cover crops also increase soil organic matter, break soil compaction and act as bio-fumigants. Through this research we would generate both quantitative and qualitative data on non-traditional cover crops such as oilseed radish and mustards and document their impact on nitrogen leaching and movement in the soil. We will also test a traditionally grown cover crop, cereal rye, for its nitrogen scavenging and weed suppressing properties. To accelerate grower adoption of cover crops we need to document the economic impact of cover crops and provide discrete values to their benefits. These discrete values could be the amount of biomass added to the soil, dollar value to the nitrogen scavenged, increase in soil microbial biomass and money saved by reducing fertilizer inputs. This research will also conduct economic analysis of brassica cover crops through cost benefit analysis taking into consideration input costs and management costs.
- Numerically quantify benefits of traditional and non-traditional cover crops under Iowa growing conditions by measuring the amount of nitrogen scavenged, weeds suppressed, and organic matter added.
- Evaluate the impact of cover crops on soil biological properties such as microbial biomass.
- Quantify the economic impact of cover crop integration in crop rotation.
We were able to demonstrate through this experiment that cover crops have tremendous potential in sequestering residual nitrogen which could otherwise leach at the end of the season. Cereal rye cover crop sequestered 20 lb/A nitrogen in the fall which is beneficial both environmentally and economically. Given the soil type (Fruitfield coarse sand) and the location of this study, Fruitland, IA, which is in the Mississippi river basin, nitrogen leaching can detrimentally affect water and other natural resources in this area. In the fall, leftover fertilizer applied to the corn and soybean crop is highly susceptible to leaching and erosion. Planting a cover crop such as cereal rye, yellow mustard, or oilseed radish has the potential of not only preventing soil erosion but also reducing nitrogen leaching into the Mississippi river.
Upcoming plans to accomplish goals:
The study is ongoing as we will collect rye biomass in the spring to quantify the total amount of nitrogen it scavenged. Also the economic impact of various cover crops will be compared using a partial budgeting approach. The comparison will examine cost savings (benefits) that may be realized from N scavenging. The economic analysis will take into consideration additional expenditures required to seed and maintain cover crops. This will help growers estimate the costs and returns before integrating cover crops in their production systems.
Economic Impact of Cover Crop Seed Sales in Illinois
Dr. Xiaolan Liu and Fred Iutzi, Western Illinois University
Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University (WIU) conducted an economic impact analysis on a scenario of increased cover crop seed sales in Illinois, to determine the economic ripple effects on state and local economies. Local economic development is frequently cited as a benefit of increased cover crop usage, with increased seed sales often presumed to be a key mechanism. However, the magnitude and nature of this positive economic effect is little examined. In this study we use the tools of economic impact analysis to estimate the employment, labor income, value added, economic output, and fiscal impacts associated with project increased cover crop seed sales in the US state of Illinois.
The size and nature of the economic ripple effects we document will be of interest to farmers, seed producers and dealers, and cover crops advocates seeking to deploy cover crops in a way that maximizes local economic development. Our conclusions will also be a valuable tool for cover crop stakeholders seeking to make the case for cover crops to policymakers and economic development officials. While data limitations limit the immediate focus of this study to the state of Illinois, we anticipate the results will be highly useful across the Mississippi River Basin (MRB) when used in the manner of a case study.
Direct analysis of other states in the MRB is an important near-future goal, so that geographically focused information can be provided to a broader range of stakeholders. Additionally, because cover crop seed supply chain is situated in the broader context of a minor crop seed sector that has been poorly documented in the literature, many assumptions are required about seed company employment, business expenditures, etc. Replacing these assumptions with real data is another important future goal. Our report will present recommendations for follow-on research in additional geographies and research to address seed sector data gaps.
Economics impacts of cover crop seed sales
Cover crops seed sales in Illinois in 2012 to support 318,636 a. worth of actual cover crop use contributed over $1.5 million of direct value added to the Illinois economy, with a direct output of over $2.8 million. With indirect and induced effects included, total value added was over $4.1 million and total output was over $6.8 million. Cover crop seed sales supported approximately 25 direct jobs in 2012 and a total of 51 jobs when impacts elsewhere in the economy are included. Table 4 presents the top ten sectors of the economy over which impacts were distributed.
The 2017 scenario applied an 8.53% annual growth rate to the 2012 acreage to reach a new total of 479,782 a., an approximate 50% increase in acreage, and assumed that existing seed industry structure, species selection, and seeding rates would stay static. Direct value added in 2017 is projected to be over $2.2 million, with direct overall output of over $4.2 million (Table 3). With indirect and induced effects included, total value added was nearly $7 million and total overall output was approximately $10 million. Cover crop seed sales supported approximately 36 direct jobs and approximately 75 total jobs.
Effect of Diverse Cover Crops on Insects and Wildlife
Ray Wright, University of Missouri
Our original plan for this study was to incorporate two Missouri Department of Conservation Wildlife Areas into the study for a majority of the proposed work. Plans were made to plant several acres on these areas with cover crop mixes that would potentially provide an excellent multiple location approach to this study. These areas are contracted with tenant farmers and unfortunately these areas were not planted in time to promote suitable establishment. Fall cover crops are very dependent on the previous harvest time of the cash crop and timely rains, last season did not allow for optimal conditions. In response we selected one area that had a moderate cover crop establishment called the Seat Wildlife Area in North Western Missouri. Needing other off-station locations we contacted a private farmer who also had a moderate establishment of cover crops in North Central Missouri, the Britt Farm, giving us our two locations. This farmer also pointed us to another group, Associated Electric who was looking at cover cropping systems and had some small but well established stands in the same area as his fields. From here we decided to meet our commitments to the NWF by shifting a little more effort on Bradford Research Center where we had several small but well established areas of cover cropping systems. This grant had four major wildlife and cover crop topics: nesting numbers and success, development of a trap habitat due to cropping operations, forage availability and impacts to pollinator health and habitat. This can be summed up into three sections: critical habitat for quail, forage availability for grazing wildlife, and insect and pollinator utilization.
This grant had four major wildlife and cover crop topics: nesting numbers and success, development of a trap habitat due to cropping operations, forage availability and impacts to pollinator health and habitat. This can be summed up into three sections, critical habitat for quail, and forage availability for grazing wildlife and insect and pollinator utilization. For addressing these topics several different sampling methods had to be modified to fit the study, which could either add validity to the sampling or add skepticism to the methods. This is no different than our opportunities to view cover cropping system as a potential critical habitat for wildlife use. This study supports that nesting success, wildlife habitat suitability indexes and grazing availability all have positive potential when cover crops are present and that these systems can help fill the void of past habitat lost. The last component of pollinator utilization was not as positive as the other components but addressing these dynamic systems with a one year study is challenging. Some of the take away points are that insect populations need time to establish and they need to have a refuge area to create a good base population to allow for balanced population growth. Also, cover cropping systems need to be well established to see the differences. Too many times these systems might be planted but environmental factors can limit their benefits. Finally, the use of insecticides will undoubtedly suppress the balanced utilization of insect populations so these types of studies might have to be conducted in a more controlled environment. Overall this study went well except for the initial challenge of finding suitable areas to study. As cover cropping systems become more prominent it should allow more suitable habitat for these types of studies.
Using simple field tests for soil quality to determine the impacts of cover crops and management practices on soil quality, and to provide information to help promote those practices at a wider scale in the Indian Creek watershed
Chad Watts, Conservation Technology Innovation Center
With the understanding that research into the kinds of things that resonate with farmers is in the works, and that more is being done to distribute and communicate those learning opportunities to the farm level, there still seems to be a gap in the kinds of practical, quantifiable information on the benefits of soil health management practices, and how that information relates to the adoption of soil health management systems on individual farms. The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) has embarked on a project has been funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) from NRCS that is focused on identifying the economic and environmental benefits of cover crops for both new and experienced cover crop users. Recent information from a CTIC – Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program also points out some common misunderstandings about the benefits that cover crops can provide. These information sources are attempting to gather this kind of information. However, if farmers are going to promote cover crops and other soil health management practices to their neighbors, they need something they can tell their neighbors that is meaningful and quantifiable.
Information in this report is an attempt to begin making the connection between simple, field-level tests that can be done and useful, quantifiable information that farmers can share with their neighbors to substantiate why they are doing what they do. Obviously, this single report with limited testing is not going to tell the whole story, but it will simply serve as the beginning of a quest to continue gathering information that can be helpful in this regard and can be shared with farmers to increase overall knowledge base on cover crops and soil health.
This project is focused on some common, basic soil health management practices that can be used (or not used) on the farm. Tillage systems and the use of cover crops are the two practices we will focus on, and we will consider how using (or not using) those practices may impact the physical properties of soil that are indicators of soil health. The challenge is to figure out how we can quantify benefits and provide farmers with a better understanding of how these practices impact the soil in a positive way. It is also important to give farmers a way to communicate these benefits to other farmers in a meaningful way, which will lead to increased adoption of soil health management practices.
Also, this project is focused on promoting the benefits of cover crops and proper tillage systems to farmers in a larger watershed area in an effort to help protect water quality and improve productivity and profitability on local farms. This project is a farmer-led project in Indian Creek watershed in Livingston County, IL focused on protecting a local drinking water source in the Vermilion River (Illinois Drainage) by reducing nutrients, sediments, and other pollutants that enter the stream systems. One of the challenges is that many of the soil health tests that can easily be performed in the field are on the subjective side, and it is difficult to capture any hard-and-fast, quantifiable information in their regard. We are focused on the bulk density, infiltration and penetrometer tests to help us quantify these benefits. We have also taken temperature readings.
This report represents the beginning of a quest for information to present to farmers about cover crops and soil health. As CTIC has seen in the Indian Creek Project and in our annual Conservation in Action Tour, farmers who talk about the kinds of conservation practices and systems that they are using on their farms are influential in terms of encouraging those other farmers to adopt similar practices. Often, farmers are more willing to listen to their peers, even more so than listening to experts. This is shown in a recent cover crop survey conducted by CTIC and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program of USDA.
As such, it is important that we arm our good and progressive producers who are using cover crops and practices that encourage soil health with the kinds of information that they can share with other farmers. If we expect farmers to encourage other farmers to adopt these kinds of practices, arming them with this information is a critical step in giving them the tools they need to act as a “sales force” for cover crops and other soil health practices.
Moving forward from here, it is anticipated that CTIC and our partners in the Indian Creek project will continue to collect information from soils under various management practices that encourage soil health. We will also use the education forums and networks that have been established through the Indian Creek Project to educate producers further about soil health using the information that has been collected from soils in the area that are impacted by various management regimes. Our hope is to promote soil health management systems, including cover crops and practices that promote soil health by using this approach to provide more local learning opportunities for producers.
The ultimate goal of the Indian Creek project is to encourage water quality improvements in Indian Creek, and subsequently in the Vermilion River, through the voluntary adoption of conservation best practices and conservation systems that are productive and profitable at a sufficient scale in the Indian Creek watershed. By using information similar to what is included in this report to provide educational support to producers about best practices, and demonstrating those practices on the farm, we hope to make a difference in water quality in a drinking water source watershed in the middle of the agricultural Midwest.
Impact of Cover Crops on Bird, Insect, and Amphibian Diversity
Robert Brodman, St Joseph’s College, and Daniel Perkins, Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District
Cover crops are known to benefit soil and water quality, but little is known of the direct effects of cover crop on resident animal communities. We collected baseline data on amphibian, bird, and ground beetle communities on five plots of wetland-woodland complexes that are surrounded by cropland. From these five sites we chose two control sites and two treatment sites that have similar habitat and animal faunas. Control and treatment plots have no difference in the abundance or diversity of amphibians and birds. Treatment plots were seeded with cover crop. This will allow us to evaluate the impact of cover crop on these animal communities.
We collected baseline data from five plots prior to seeding cover crop. There was no difference in the abundance and diversity of birds and amphibians, or amphibian species richness. But there were more species of birds in treatment plots prior to seeding cover crop. The Division Road Control site had the fewest observations and lowest species richness and diversity of all three animal groups. Unlike the other control sites and both treatment sites, it only had temporary wetlands that dried before amphibian surveys could be completed. Our goal in this baseline data phase of the study was to select the two control sites that match the two treatment sites. Dropping it from the study results in no significant difference in any of our parameters including bird species richness (P = 0.25) between the remaining two control sites and the two treatment sites.
Our methodology in collecting baseline data has been demonstrated to be adequate to test hypotheses of the impact of cover crop on resident wildlife communities. We hypothesize that data collected in 2015 will show and increase in abundance and diversity of wildlife in the treatment plots compared to control and relative to baseline.