Innovation Often Starts at Home – That Goes for Cover Crops, Too

Cover Crop Innovations Often Home Grown

Early Adopters and Equipment Designers Propel Cover Crop Usage

Cover crops continue to attract national attention because of the benefits they add to soil health, boosts in crop production and clean water. But, 15 years ago, the practice of no-tilling and cover crops was almost unheard of, outside of a small number of farmers and educators like Mike Plumer, formerly with the University of Illinois Extension.

Rough estimates today say that about 65% of Midwest soybean acres, and 25% of corn acres, are in no-till or strip-till. Of that, perhaps a million of those acres are using cover crops for fields during the winter. Up from about 5,000 acres in 2005, a million acres sounds like a lot. And although the adoption rate is climbing steadily, Plumer reminds us: “There are about 90 million acres of corn and 60 million acres of soybeans in the Midwest. A million acres in cover crops amounts to less than 1% of the acreage.”

Early adopters and equipment designers have both stepped up, multiplying the educational efforts begun by universities and annual ryegrass seed growers (Oregon) in the 1990s. Here are some examples:

  • Jim and Jamie Scott (Pierceton, IN) turned their own success with annual ryegrass into a cover crop education effort with neighbors. Jamie now speaks at field days and national conferences about increasingly complex cover crop management issues. They also provide cover crop seed applications – using contracted air service – for those who want timely seed planting but don’t have the time once harvest begins. For their continuous efforts, the Scotts received a national conservation award from the American Soybean Association a few years back.

In order to make aerial seeding of cover crops affordable, Scott and others in aviation and manufacturing have developed equipment that allows quick and safe loading of seed, and this cuts the cost of transportation. (see photo)

  • Tim Harrigan, University of Michigan associate professor, developed equipment to deliver cover crop seed immersed in manure slurry. “Combining several farming operations into one saves farmers time and money, at a time (fall) when we’re pressed to get all these things done,” Harrigan said. Harrigan has a video of the operation on YouTube:
  • Greg Roth, an agronomy professor at Penn State University developed a multipurpose tool as an outcome of another project where cornstalk residue was being removed for use as a biofuel. Cover crops are increasingly important to protect bare soil over winter.

Like Harrigan, Roth wanted to combine various operations in one, in this case seeding a cover crop while simultaneously applying herbicide and fertilizer at lay-by time. “That saves about two-thirds of the cost,” Roth said, because farmers can do in one pass what used to be done in three. See Penn State’s video on YouTube:

  • Don and Matt Birky developed a “highboy” machine specially equipped for seeding and other applications in standing corn. The “High Roller” delivers seed at 80 mph from a height of more than 10 feet, with a boom width of 60 feet. Birky said that the equipment is great for those wanting to plant cover crops while corn and soybeans are still in the field, but where application by planes is impractical because of field logistics or weather. See more about this equipment at

“While ongoing education by universities, commodity associations, agriculture media and the seed industry is important, it’s often the case that the most changes happen over the fence, talking to your neighbor,” said Dan Towery, a former NRCS agronomist now coordinating educational efforts at Indiana’s Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative ( Both Towery and Plumer are also part of the Midwest Cover Crop Council, a valuable website for information on various cover crops based on specific locale and conditions. (




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