Project Overview

Since 2020 this project, a collaboration between Michael Fields, UW-Madison, and The Nature Conservancy, has addressed the need for locally relevant information on cover cropping as a key strategy to build soil health and protect water quality in Wisconsin. We see farmers as taking the lead in experimenting and fine-tuning cover cropping to fit into Wisconsin's farm systems and particular locations. Our aim is to support farmers' creative adaptive capacity by providing them robust data and stories from other farmers around the state who are working with cover crops.

Each year participating farmers provide information on their cover crop practices as well as motivations, sources of support, and perceived benefits and barriers to cover cropping. They also provide fall and spring biomass samples. As a participatory research effort, we are learning from growers about benefits, challenges, and results. We are using this data to inform policy, research, and outreach to develop workable cover cropping strategies in Wisconsin's diverse cropping systems, soil types, and microclimates. We are also aggregating this information from around the state into other cover crop data sets to improve decision support tools like SnapPlus, and to guide practical cover crop recommendations. Participating farmers receive personalized data on the amount of biomass their cover crop produced as well as forage and nutrient analyses. Please explore our citizen science dashboard.

"What matters to me is, when the ground is frozen and it rains, would I stick a glass in the stream and drink it? I went to the Gulf of Mexico and sat on the beach with my wife and knew some part of that water was from my farm. I think about that."

-Project participant

A few highlights from our project:

  • Over a hundred farmers in over 60 counties around the state.
  • Biomass production in northern counties can be competitive with more southern farms.
  • Cereal rye and oats are favored, reliable cover crops, but multispecies mixes, often including a legume, are the most popular cover crop among respondents.
  • Neighbors and producer-led grower groups are at the top of the list as sources of information on cover cropping.
  • More data on the impacts of cover cropping on nutrient management is of interest to many participants.

Project Protocol

Each summer we send out invitations to join the survey via email to extension agricultural educators, producer-led groups, land and water conservation county offices, and others. Beginning in October, participating producers complete an online 35 question form regarding cover cropping experiments and experience, including crops planted, dates, seeding rates, fertility management and tillage. We also ask about key sources of information and motivations to cover crop. Beginning in Fall 2024, we provided participating farmers with a sampling kit, with a pvc pipe 2x2 foot quadrat and clippers, along with instructions on how to cut a representative sample of a fall cover crop at the soil surface. Any weeds present are not separated from the samples. We also include a scale and pre-addressed envelopes so that plant samples can be weighed in the field and then easily shipped to labs for a biomass estimate as well as nutrient and forage analysis. At the end of the growing season we provide participants with $100 honorarium as well as their personal biomass estimates and nutrient information.