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Handy Online Tool Aids Cover Crop Choice

05/09/2014 @ 1:09pm

It’s hard to ignore the cover crops buzz these days. But the additional cost of seed and fuel to plant, horror stories of rye turning into a rampant weed, and the plethora of options make it overwhelming for a cover crop newbie.

Fortunately, Midwestern farmers may use the free and accessible Cover Crop Decision Tool at mccc.msu.edu to determine which cover crops fit their needs. 

Why the tool?

The primary goal is to consolidate information in one place so you don’t have to hunt all over and to generate specific recommendations. The secondary goal is to provide education along with it,” explains Dean Baas, senior research associate at Michigan State University and project coordinator. 

It started when researchers, Extension educators, farmers, and representatives from several commodity groups, the private sector, and federal and state agencies from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Ontario met to compare ideas they could take back to their state’s growers. 

They shared the belief that adding cover crops could help resolve several issues, including loss of soil nutrients, pest problems, erosion, and algae bloom from nutrients washing into waterways. 

With funding from a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation innovation grant and the USDA Great Lakes Regional Water Program, 10 to 20 people in each state rated cover crop effectiveness from 0 (poor) to 4 (excellent). 

“In one state, a cover crop may be good; in another, it may be only fair,” Baas explains.

Combined with information from NRCS, Extension bulletins, research, and frost-free dates from the National Weather Service’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it took about six weeks to create each state’s online tool. 

“One rule was to not overpromise what cover crops will do, so the ratings are conservative,” Baas says. 

The results

To use the cover crop selector tool at mccc.msu.edu, fill in your state (or province) and county, the soil’s drainage class, field flooding potential, cash crop plant and harvest dates, and the type of crop the cover crop follows.

The real education begins when choosing three of the 11 attributes of cover crops, based on your goals.

“When you add an attribute, it immediately makes changes and shades out cover crops that will no longer work. For example, if you put in nitrogen source as an attribute, only legumes remain,” Baas says.

The resulting chart shows dates for reliable establishment as well as dates with freeze risk. You can then choose specific crops and request information sheets with more details, including seeding depths and rates as well as advantages and disadvantages.

More to learn

Baas was surprised at how much variability there is between states. 

“In Iowa, they have dry falls, so they have a harder time getting some things established compared to Michigan and Indiana, even though they have similar latitudes,” he says.

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