Grant helps study aerial seeding as method of cover crop establishment

MSU Extension and partners received SARE grant funds to demonstrate and promote aerial cover crop seeding on northeast Michigan corn and soybean acres.

Cereal rye aerial-seeded into corn July 18, 2012. Picture was taken May 7, 2013. Photo credit: Dean Baas, MSU

Cereal rye aerial-seeded into corn July 18, 2012. Picture was taken May 7, 2013. Photo credit: Dean Baas, MSU

Michigan State University Extension Presque Isle County, in partnership with three Michigan Conservation Districts (Montmorency, Presque Isle and Alpena counties), the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and local field crop producers, has been selected to receive $29,810 in grant funds from the new Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Partnership Grant Program. Grant funds will be used over the next year to investigate and demonstrate cooperative aerial seeding as a method of timely cover crop establishment on northeast Michigan corn and soybean acres.

Cover crops are plants grown between harvest and planting of cash crops, usually not for harvest, but for the production of biomass and the various agroecological benefits this additional biomass can provide. Cover crops contribute to crop production through improvement of soil health and fertility, pest management and water availability. Keeping the soil covered can also reduce erosion and increase nutrient cycling on farmlands, thereby decreasing the soil and nutrient loads entering our waterways.

Cereal rye is the most popular winter cover crop in northern climates due to its ability to germinate under relatively cool temperatures and produce abundant biomass. Enhanced nutrient use efficiency and yield stability associated with rye cover crop use are of interest to producers in northeast Michigan, who commonly farm less-than-ideal soils. However, timely cover crop establishment on local corn and soybean acres using traditional seeding equipment is frequently precluded by harvest operations that carry-on into November and poor late-season field conditions.

Alternative seeding technologies, such as aerial and high clearance ground equipment, are available to address this barrier by over-seeding a cover crop prior to fall harvest of corn or soybeans. Yet, the significant financial and logistical investments required to drop seed from an airplane or access high clearance seeding equipment often outweigh somewhat less tangible improvements in long-term soil health. Most row crop acres in northeast Michigan are not seeded with a cover crop.

A 2012 survey conducted by North Central SARE found that under drought conditions, corn and soybeans planted after cover crops yielded 10.6 percent more, on average, than fields without covers. Cover crops can certainly pay off, but what can be done to enhance the viability of aerial seeding? Cover crop innovators in other states such as Iowa and Indiana have tackled this problem by developing cooperative aerial seeding programs coordinated by local agriculture professionals. These programs aggregate acres to be seeded across a few counties, thereby reducing producers’ individual costs for seed and aerial application.

Following this example, the recently funded Northeast Michigan Aerial Cover Crop Seeding Demonstrations project will use aerial overseeding to establish cereal rye in 400 acres of corn and soybeans prior to harvest in 2015. This acreage will be managed as research and demonstration sites highlighted by a comprehensive outreach campaign and series of three events throughout the year. Events will be designed to educate producers on the potential benefits and challenges of cereal rye cover crops and aerial overseeding. Participants will be invited to attend aerial seeding and cover crop termination workshops, as well as enroll additional acres to be aerially seeded through the program. Producers wishing to have acres seeded will be charged an estimated $46 per acre for non-demonstration fields including seed, application and a $2 per acre service charge to allow continuation of the cooperative program beyond the grant cycle. This cost could decrease or increase slightly based on application costs and the number of acres enrolled.

SARE is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to advance – to the whole of American agriculture – innovations that improve profitability, stewardship and quality of life by investing in groundbreaking research and education.

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