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WI Ag Researchers Lift the Cover on Cover Crops

Looking down at soybeans planted into a cereal rye cover crop.
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According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, cover-crop acres in the United States have increased to 10 million.

EAST TROY, Wis. - Wisconsin farmers are looking ahead to the fall harvest, and those who use cover crops face a deadline to sign up for a research project to measure the effectiveness of this form of sustainable farming.

Cover crops are designed to prevent harmful runoff and improve soil health on the farm. Researchers with the University of Wisconsin and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute want to connect with producers this fall to see what works best for them.

Dan Smith, southwest regional specialist for the Nutrient and Pest Management Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it's great that farmers are spreading the word about the practice, but added that reliable data needs to go along with that messaging.

"Cover crops are not free to plant," he said, "so we have to have a return, and in order to have a return, we have to be producing above-ground and below-ground biomass."

The more biomass produced through cover crops means a farmer has healthier soil to work with. This is the second year these partners have gathered data from farmland. Last year's initial run saw 15 participants, and Smith said they're on pace to more than double that number in 2021. The sign-up deadline is Oct. 1.

Smith said the overall goal is to ensure farmers who want to adopt this profitable and environmentally friendly practice have the best cover-crop recommendations for Wisconsin's climate. While a lot of methods have worked, he said their initial research has shown flexibility is sometimes needed.

"If we have really wet fall conditions when we're harvesting," he said, "it's really tough to plant a cover crop. So, can we look to other tools, such as interseeding a cover crop in June?"

He said it's about developing "workable science" for which types of cover crops to use, and when it's best to apply them. The state Department of Agriculture said through its Producer-Led Program, more than 83,000 farm acres in Wisconsin had cover crops in use last year, a 19% increase from the previous year.