Cover Crop Tool Directs Decision Making

Nov 30, 2017

By Barb Baylor Anderson • From Fall 2017 American Soybean Magazine

Farmers have as many questions as answers when it comes to cover crops. While this relative newcomer to conservation strategy is proving effective, it’s not without its challenges.

“The primary questions I have gotten from farmers for the last 10 years are about which cover crops to plant and how to use those crops to solve specific field conservation issues,” said Betsy Bower, certified crop adviser (CCA) with Ceres Solutions, Lafayette, Ind.

One of the tools Bower uses with farmers is the Midwest Cover Crops Council’s (MCCC) Cover Crop Decision Tool. The web-based tool was developed, in part, through a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) made available through the 2014 Farm Bill Conservation Title. Several similar-type grants are in use nationwide to help farmers find new ways to manage environmental risk.

“The tool came about because we know cover crops can dramatically reduce nutrient losses to surface and ground water, provide nutrients for the next crop and enhance water infiltration, all of which improve resilience to extreme weather,” said Anna Morrow, MCCC program manager. “Farmers, educators and crop advisers all can use the decision tool to tailor crop selection.”

Morrow said knowledge was gathered from cover crop professionals across several states to come up with the practical decision support system. Data contained within the tool was derived from literature, research and on-farm trial information provided by Extension and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel, CCAs, seed suppliers and farmers.

The Cover Crops Decision Tool allows farmers to evaluate their options with county-level information; cover crop species and seeding rates adapted to local conditions, soils and management goals. Farmers begin by entering their state and county, and then customize selections based on cash crops grown, specific soil characteristics and up to three priorities for growing cover crops. For example, reasons might include using the cover crop as a nitrogen source or scavenger, as a soil builder, or erosion or weed fighter. Farmers also can input if they want to graze the cover crop, want quick growth or lasting residue and more.

“I sit with farmers and help them walk through the various steps. We review all of the options for their fields and the key factors for decision-making,” Bower said. “The tool allows us to dive down into the ‘weeds’ and narrow down to the right options quickly.”

Bower encourages farmers to experiment with the tool, alone or with an adviser, to learn how to hone into just a few crop choices. She also advises farmers to input different scenarios by field, including planting and harvest dates and field characteristics, to manage troublesome situations.

“This is not a one-use tool. Farmers can work with it every season to change around what works and what doesn’t. Cover crops remain a work in progress, and farmers should consider using this evaluation tool with others, such as the one from NRCS, to make decisions,” she said.

For more information or to use the online evaluation tool, visit the website,