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.
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.

Study shows cover crops cut Great Lakes nutrients"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.”

Les Seiler, a producer from Fayette, Ohio, said participating in GLCCI helped him further develop his use of cover crops.

“GLCCI provided information and connected me with resources for seed selection and data about what would work in my area,” he said. “Also, sharing ideas with others through GLCCI was invaluable.”

To facilitate that sharing of ideas, GLCCI partners hosted several educational opportunities. More than 80 field days reaching 5,500 people demonstrated how farmers were taking steps to improve water quality in the Great Lakes. In November 2013, CTIC hosted the Cover Crop Summit in the Fort Wayne, Ind., area. The summit featured four farms where farmers discussed how they incorporate cover crops in their rotations, the equipment used for planting and terminating cover crops and the soil health changes they experienced when using cover crops.

To understand further the status of cover crop use in the United States, CTIC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program conducted a comprehensive cover crop survey following the drought of 2012 to quantify and promote the benefits of cover crops. More than 750 farmers responded.

Other activities included two focus groups that were held to better understand the views of producers and ag retailers on cover crops. CTIC and partners also provided support to GLCCI producers to attend the 2013 National No-Tillage Conference, CTIC’s Conservation in Action Tour and the Ag Media Summit.

Partners in GLCCI were The Ohio State University, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems InitiativeMidwest Cover Crops Council, Ohio No-Till Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The project was funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

For more information on the project, as well as stories and videos featuring producers who participated in GLCCI, visit www.ctic.org/GLCCI. CTIC also captured the lessons learned from the producer focus group and the link between water quality and cover crops through talking to farmers, Extension educators and university researchers. More information on cover crops can be found on CTIC's cover crop page or by contacting Chad Watts at 574-242-0147 or watts@ctic.org.