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Conservation Tools Help Producers Make Positive Impacts on Changing Climate

America’s farmers and ranchers are helping put the nation on track to a healthier and more resilient environment in the face of a changing climate. While agriculture only contributes 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it offers a variety of opportunities to reduce emissions and cut carbon from the atmosphere. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is committed to help producers become even better conservation stewards by providing the tools they need to do the job.

Rediscovering Cover Crops and the Power of ‘Green Manure’

Farmers throughout history have taken advantage of off-season plant growth to enhance their next year’s crops. These plants, called cover crops, are beneficial in many ways, including protection against weed infestation and soil erosion, as well as feed for farm animals. Some farmers use cover crops in no-till farming systems. However, when cover crops are incorporated into the soil, they become a fertility-enhancing mulch – what some call “green manure.”

I’m Not Going to Turn Another Clod

Plunging his shovel into a wheat field covered in soybean residue, Gary Hula hefts up a mound of crumbly soil with a grin. The county is under moderate drought and it’s just above freezing outside, but the soil in his shovel is full of moisture and riddled with worm holes—sure signs of healthy soil.

Agricultural Lands Key to a Healthy Chesapeake Bay

A vibrant and healthy agriculture sector is a critical component of restoring and improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and I’m proud of the steps that our Bay-area agricultural producers are taking to protect this national treasure. Agricultural producers have implemented nearly $1 billion worth of conservation practices on 3.6 million acres – an area three times the size of Delaware – since 2009 with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

From coastal communities in Virginia and Maryland to the hills of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, farmers and forest landowners are voluntarily making conservation improvements to their land that reduce erosion, manage nutrients and protect stream corridors – all contributing to cleaner water downstream. We celebrated the accomplishments of producers today at Y Worry Farm in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, bringing together producers, agricultural groups, non-government organizations and others to celebrate these investments in cleaner water.

This Isn't Farming Like Grandpa Used to Do

Samantha Whitter represents the fifth generation at Whittier Farms in Sutton, Massachusetts. Her family’s 500-acre, 100-head dairy farm is one of the largest in this small town 10 miles south of Worcester—the second largest city in New England, after Boston.

Samantha’s dad, Wayne Whittier, signed up for aerial cover crop seeding offered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The conservation practice involves a helicopter swooping over corn fields, releasing winter rye seed from a hopper swinging beneath the chopper. To a bystander, it might look like an air show or a crime scene investigation, but it’s actually a very controlled seed application that uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the helicopter’s flight path and precisely map where seed was distributed.

Partners in Conservation: Red Cedar Demonstration Farm Offers Hands-On Education

In Menomonie, Wisconsin, there is a 155-acre, three-parcel farm, whose purpose is to educate and demonstrate natural resources conservation. As part of their curriculum, Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) Agricultural Program students perform farm work there in an outdoor classroom environment.

“The Red Cedar Demonstration Farm gives students a hands-on opportunity to plant, scout fields, monitor growth, harvest, write nutrient plans, take soil samples. Really, it’s a full farm laboratory for students,” said John Sippl, Dunn County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist.

Experimental Farming in the Name of Soil Health: Steve Siverling's Story

NRCS thanks Steve for sharing his firsthand successes with cover crops. Our goal is to share ideas on how to implement soil health principles and cover crops on your farm. Steve Siverling has seen many benefits on his farm through the use of cover crops including increased soil structure and organic matter, less soil compaction and erosion, improved water holding capacity in the soil, improved quality of crop test weights and protein, less purchased fertilizer inputs, potential grazing during fall and spring, increased wildlife habitat, weed suppression, and breaks in pest cycles. “Steve is an active member of our NRCS farmer network with cover crops in Chippewa County and has done a great job networking with other farmers and helping NRCS advance the soil health movement one farm at a time,” said Tammy Lindsay, Chippewa County District Conservationist.

My name is Steve Siverling, and I plant corn, soybeans and a few small grains on 350 acres in northern Wisconsin.  But what I am growing is soil health; I am a biological farmer.

I began my soil health journey and evolution to a biological farmer 20 years ago when I purchased 80 acres near my farm. The soil pH was low, around 5.5, and there was less than one percent organic matter. I couldn’t make immediate improvements to the land that would allow me to plant a crop that could tolerate those conditions, but I had to try something.

Climate-Smart Practices Keep the Land Covered

All this month we will be taking a look at what a changing climate means to Agriculture. The ten regional USDA Climate Hubs were established to synthesize and translate climate science and research into easily understood products and tools that land managers can use to make climate-informed decisions. The Hubs work at the regional level with an extensive network of trusted USDA agency partners, technical service providers, University collaborators, and private sector advisers to ensure they have the information they need to respond to producers that are dealing with the effects of a variable climate. USDA's Climate Hubs are part of our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions, so that our agricultural leaders have the modern technologies and tools they need to adapt and succeed in the face of a changing climate."

There are many ways that farmers can use plant cover to mitigate and adapt to climate change. To learn climate-smart practices, farmers can turn to resources like USDA’s Plant Materials Center in Lockeford, California (CAPMC) which is one of 25 PMCs nationwide.  Established in the 1930’s to help with plant-based tools to combat the Dust Bowl, the PMCs test, develop, and deploy plant mixtures and cultivars to solve conservation challenges.  These challenges include soil erosion, water and air pollution, riparian degradation, loss of wildlife habitat – and now, climate change.

Organic Study Uses Domestic Sheep to Facilitate Sustainable Farming

Environmental and economic management of weeds and pests is a priority for organic farmers and they typically use tillage to address these issues. However, frequent mechanical tillage can reduce soil integrity, which increases costs for farmers and negatively impacts future crop growth. Now, Montana State University (MSU) researchers are studying an alternate technique to manage these issues—domestic sheep.

Instead of using traditional tilling machinery or herbicides, MSU’s project features domestic sheep that graze farmland to eliminate the cover crop and control weeds. The study will determine if an integrated animal and crop production system is an economically feasible way to reduce tillage for certified organic farms.