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Most of us recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cover cropping. That makes accessing good data and insights – from across different geographies, weather patterns, and farming systems – absolutely critical. To address this need, Soil Health Partnership (SHP) Field Managers Dustin Brucker and Jim Isermann, along with SHP’s Michigan Research Manager Kristin Poley, recently led a Soil Sessions webinar highlighting cover crop observations from across the Midwest and the details of SHP’s new field check protocols. 

With this information, growers, agronomists and other key partners can more effectively consider how cover cropping fits their operation, design more tailored approaches to implementation, and tap into the experience of others in order to increase the chance for success. 

Good Information In, Good Information Out

Collecting in-field data and observations is core to the work of SHP’s field team. As such, all three panelists shared how they are implementing a new approach to data collection – field checks. Starting with cover crop planting, SHP field managers are collecting information at four key points throughout the growing season:

  • Field Check 1 – fall, post-harvest/cover crop planting
  • Field Check 2 – spring, pre-plant, spring cover crop establishment
  • Field Check 3 – spring, post-plant
  • Field Check 4 – mid-season (e.g., following ear set in corn, pod set in soybeans)

At each of these touchpoints, field managers are evaluating multiple data points such as soil temperature, residue cover, and the presence of various weeds, diseases and insects.

While sampling in spring 2020 has been somewhat inconsistent due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Poley notes that, “Our team has put forth incredible effort to make this data collection process consistent across the network in order to magnify its impact.”

Learn from Others to Create an Effective Cover Cropping Approach

For growers considering cover cropping or who are looking to tweak their current program, it can help to look at what others have done and where they’ve seen success.

“I recommend getting as much advice as possible on management techniques prior to planting the cover crop,” says Brucker. “To have long-term impact from cover cropping, growers need to experience initial success – otherwise you run the risk of getting a ‘bad taste in your mouth’ and walking away before getting the full benefit. Have a good plan backed by careful thought.”

This is where SHP trial data comes in handy. Brucker and Isermann shared several observations from farms they partner with in Iowa and Illinois, which growers considering cover crops should take into consideration:

  • The cool, wet fall that many growers experienced in 2019 impacted who was and wasn’t able to plant cover crops post-harvest. For those who were able to plant, it went in late in many places – impacting overall growth and benefit.
  • Where cover crops were planted, growth varied by application method. Both Brucker and Isermann observed better growth with drilled or interseeded application as compared to aerial application (especially in soybeans). 
  • Cover crop impact on soil temperature continues to be measured. At Field Check 3, it appears that some are seeing benefit from cover cropping, where residue from cover crops creates cooler soil temperatures – thus impacting moisture retention.
  • Should you plant green or not? Jury’s still out. Isermann noted that several farms he works with were able to terminate earlier in 2020 as compared to 2019, simply because of more favorable planting conditions this year (especially for soybeans). For those who are planting green, he’s seeing more success planting into smaller cover crop plants. He also reiterated the importance of terminating in a timely manner, which is even more important in corn.

The Opportunities for SHP Data are Endless

In the final segment of the webinar, Poley highlighted early findings from trial data. This information is collected using Survey123, an app within ArcGIS Online. She highlighted that this platform allows SHP to collect data in a way that’s customizable, as well as easy to use and access.

“From a science perspective, I hope growers, agronomists and our other industry partners recognize how powerful this data collection effort is. The immense magnitude of our dataset creates an equally immense potential for analyses, learning, and adaptation based on findings,” she says. 

Some key takeaways from 2020 that Poley highlighted include:

  • At Field Check 2 (spring, pre-plant):
    • Grass species continue to be the most popular cover crop (47% of fields with an established cover crop included grass species)
      • Ground coverage varies widely, with growers experiencing either low (less than 25%) or high (more than 75%) coverage
      • Stand count ranges from <148,000 plants per acre to more than 593,000 plants per acre, with the bulk of samples ranging from 296,000-444,000 plants per acre
    • There’s an opportunity for future research, specifically around planting different cover crop species and the impact of single vs. mixed species planting
    • Soil temperatures were, on average, 0.26° warmer in strips without current season cover cropping
  • At Field Check 3 (spring, post-plant):
    • Early season cash crops show a nearly even split between corn (55%) and soybeans (44%)
      • Corn:
        • Field Check 3 most often occurred at V3
        • Average corn stand count at around 31,000 plants/acre
      • Soybeans
        • Field Check 3 most often occurred at V(n) or V2
        • Average soybean stand count at around 124,500 plants/acre
    • Soil temperatures were, on average, 0.98° warmer in strips without current season cover cropping 

While these highlights are useful, Poley emphasizes that the 2020 field dataset is not complete. She looks forward to combining this information with field management, yield, and additional soils data for even deeper insights. SHP will also be looking at how this data corresponds to long-term environmental and economic benefits.

According to Poley, “We’ve only scratched the surface of the relationships and patterns that this dataset undoubtably holds.”

Time to Dig In

When it comes to cover cropping, no two farms are the same. Varying weather conditions, soil types and management practices impact the potential benefit of cover cropping and other soil health practices on any given operation. With that in mind, SHP continues to collect real-time, real-world data in order to help growers make decisions that are most relevant and effective for their business. Using the insights shared in this post and in the full webinar session, growers can feel more comfortable and confident making cover crop decisions that serve their unique situation and goals.

To access this full webinar or to watch past SHP webinars, check out our Soil Sessions library here.