Study shows cover crops cut Great Lakes nutrients
Michigan farmers Nathan Clarke (left) and Dave Clarke (middle) examine a field of winter wheat planted as a cover crops with Paul Gross, Michigan State University Extension educator for Isabella County. Keeping crop fields covered between growing seasons for corn, soybeans and other cash crops can help improve water quality by keeping nutrients on the farm, a collaborative three-year project led by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) demonstrated.
The Great Lakes Cover Crop Initiative (GLCCI), which concluded in December, promoted cover crops and conservation farming systems to crop producers in the Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan watersheds. Along with several university partners, agricultural organizations and government agencies, CTIC launched the initiative in 2010 to broaden the knowledge and adoption of cover crops to improve soil and water quality in the Great Lakes Region.
With this purpose in mind, CTIC and partners set out to plant 15,000 acres of cover crops over the three-year span of the initiative. From 2010 to 2013, producers in the Great Lakes Basin planted more than 36,970 acres of cover crops, far above the original goal. The cover crops reduced nitrogen by nearly 73,000 pounds, phosphorus by more than 24,100 pounds and sediment by more than 1,440 tons in the Great Lakes.
Chad Watts, CTIC project director, said that establishing cover crops is one way that agriculture can contribute to the goal of cleaner water while making a difference on individual farms.
“Farmers not only can contribute benefits to water quality, but also can improve the soils, beneficial soil biology, nutrient holding capacity, and infiltration on their farms,” Watts said. “If cover crops are properly used over a large enough acreage, farmers can make a significant contribution to the improvement of water quality in the Great Lakes and the rivers and streams that run to them.”
Through GLCCI, farmers received one-on-one technical assistance to identify objectives for their cover crop use, select the right cover crops and crop rotations for their operations and plant and terminate cover crops in a timely manner.
Winter peas are one of the many crops that can be used as a cover crop. "Cover crops are best when used as part of a systems approach to farming,” Watts said. “Having experienced technical assistance from someone who knows how to build a successful conservation cropping system is absolutely necessary to achieve the farm objectives through cover crops. This is the kind of service we provided through GLCCI.”
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