Progress with cover crops

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Hundreds of research projects around the country and a new, effective tool that can be used to improve soil quality, weed management and farmer profit levels, are the result of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) funding.

click image to zoom The tool is the roller crimper, a drum with blades mounted to the front- or back-end of a tractor that is used to roll down, crimp and kill cover crops, creating thick, weed suppressing mulch. Today, the roller crimper is a common sight on land-grant university research plots, according to Jeff Moyer, director of farm operations at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Penn., who conceived of the tool and has led in-depth research on its use first initiated with SARE grant money.

The crimper, while not a fix-all, has shown many advantages, including using 40 percent less energy than cultivating or spraying; reducing erosion; retaining moisture; and allowing for more flexibility, since roll downs do not need to be timed to dry conditions.

Tim Bock, who runs a 100-acre certified organic farm outside Kutztown, has tried the roller on more than 20 acres for another SARE-funded project. After two years of success, he plans to completely switch his soybean production to rolled rye. “The results have been outstanding,” Bock said. “I’ve really reduced my weed pressure and drastically reduced the number of trips across the field. I eliminated a complete tillage cycle.”

SARE says it is at the forefront of supporting the innovative producers, educators and researchers who are making cover crops one of the most indispensable cost-saving tools in the soil-health toolbox. SARE began funding research in 2002. There are immense benefits of integrating both cover crops and conservation tillage into farming operations around the country.

  • On his Montana dryland farm, Jess Alger has compare no-till wheat grown with a black medic cover crop to a conventional wheat system. In two years of trials, below-average precipitation led to losses in both systems, but he lost considerably less on the no-till field—a combined $11.46 per acre, as opposed to $75.90 per acre on the conventional field.
  • Virginia Tech researcher Ron Morse has laid the groundwork in a newly researched area: using no-till and cover crops in organic broccoli and cabbage production. While encountering many challenges, Morse had many encouraging results that have informed subsequent research, including that no-till cabbage yields were 41 percent better than with conventional tillage.
  • After being approached by organic farmers interested in adopting no-till, Ohio State University researchers compared soybean yield results from various combinations of cover crops and no-till termination methods, including roller crimpers and mowers. The researchers found that no-till could work. There was no significant difference in yields between these no-till treatments and conventional tillage practices.

SARE reports having supported cover crop research and demonstration plots for 25 years. Practical tools and concepts are available by visiting the SARE’s Cover Crops Topic Room of the website:

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