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Study Shows the Benefits of Winter Cover Crops

Roller crimper terminating cover crops

Roller crimper terminating cover crops

Every year when winter comes, recently harvested farm fields are exposed to the weather elements. Without plants to help stabilize and protect the soil, precipitation takes any excess nutrients used in growing the produce and floats it down into water sources. All the nitrogen that was vital to growing robust crops ends up flowing into water supplies and has wide-reaching effects on the environment. Researchers from the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), a shared unit of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, have discovered a possible solution that could reduce these leftover nitrates in the drainage water by 30%.

The research team found that cover crops could be an important component of sustainable agriculture in Illinois. Cover crops get their name from their role. They’re planted to cover the soil when desired produce can’t grow and can target certain issues in farming, like soil erosion or attracting pollinators. Cover crops can even increase yields during the normal planting season. In their paper published in Science of the Total Environment, The ACES and Grainger research team identified cereal rye as a cover crop that could potentially aid in Illinois farmers’ sustainability efforts.

The team utilized a crop simulation model called the Decision Support System for Agrotechnology Transfer (DSSAT). This model allowed the research team to test various conditions and combinations of cover crop use in Illinois to determine what application would be most effective. These simulations were run on the Illinois Campus Cluster Program with NCSA.

In addition, a team of Research Software Engineers and Designers from NCSA led by Christopher Navarro, lead research software engineer, collaborated with the research teams from ABE, ACES, the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS), and Purdue University to design and develop a cover crop decision support web application, the Cover Crop Analyzer, that uses the crop simulation model. With just a few clicks, a farmer using this application can find and add a field to their profile, customize it with their own crop management data and run the simulations that predict cover crop growth on their field for the specified growing season. An important aspect of the application is that farmers can see visualizations related to a cover crop’s growth, its benefits for reducing nutrient runoff, and its decomposition rate after termination.

A great deal of data needed to be integrated from a wide array of sources to create the Cover Crop Analyzer, including soil data from USDA SSURGO, historical weather data from the ISWS, historical crop rotation data from USDA’s Cropland Data Layer, field boundaries from the Farm Service Agency Common Land Units and a set of default crop management practices curated by the research team for the Illinois region. Data from all these sources were parsed, processed and presented to the DSSAT crop simulation model through the web application. The web application was developed using the ReactJS and Python Flask frameworks, with NCSA’s DataWolf scientific workflow system at the core of everything, and currently runs on NCSA’s cloud computing resource Radiant. The team has published a paper on the extensible framework that evolved from the Cover Crop Analyzer, which can be used for other similar ag-related applications.

The project team is looking for farmers, researchers, extension educators, and others with interest and data on cover crops to use the Cover Crop Analyzer. It hopes the web application will aid farmers in making informed decisions about adopting the sustainable practice of cover cropping. While the majority of farms in Illinois still don’t use cover crops, the hope is that studies like these will encourage farmers to adopt cover crop usage more widely.

Our research shows cover crops work. They have the potential to reduce erosion as well as nutrient loss from our fields, especially with tile drainage. We wanted to explore the benefits on the whole-state level to show what could happen if thousands of farmers adopted this conservation practice simultaneously. The water quality benefits would be significant.

study co-author Rabin Bhattarai, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

The results of this study helped inform an online decision-support tool funded by the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council. A tool like this makes it easier for farmers to test if using cover crops would be beneficial in their specific circumstances.

For more detailed coverage of this story, read the original posting from ACES here.

NCSA’s Sandeep Puthanveetil Satheesan, senior research software engineer, contributed to this story.

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