March 2, 2021 — For a farmer or grower, using cover crops to maintain soil health during non-growing seasons is rapidly becoming one of the smartest and most-viable land maintenance strategies. Crops like rye, wheat and barley, and even various legumes have become favorites of corn and soybean farmers because they can reduce soil erosion, retain soil nutrients like nitrogen, and even improve water filtration and holding capacity. When compared to the alternative of letting land lay fallow and lose valuable nutrients, choosing which cover crop to plant becomes a nuanced and important decision that can be tailored to various geographies.
Thanks to the work of the University of Illinois’ Cover Crop team, including the work of National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) researchers, farmers and landowners can now harness the power of advanced computing to find how effective a cover crop can be for their location, based on a litany of factors.
Initially, the tool has support for the cereal rye, whose deep roots can be an important component to soil health. With the Cover Crop Analyzer tool, a user is able to map their land, enter the planting dates of their cash and cover crops, and simulate how it will perform with a selected weather pattern, allowing farmers to optimize their crops for a particular season.
The newly-updated tool, named the Cover Crop Analyzer, builds off the framework being developed at NCSA that the Farmdoc team also uses to develop tools farmers can leverage for a variety of concerns, from insurance premiums to commodity payments.
“This latest release of the Cover Crop Analyzer has a decomposition component that gives farmers another perspective for deciding when to terminate the cover crop,” said Chris Navarro, Lead Research Programmer at NCSA and co-PI of the Farmdoc project. “Based on the simulated cover crop growth at termination, we can estimate how quickly the stored nutrients will be released back to the soil which could impact nutrient application and other decisions.”
It’s the hope that the Cover Crop Analyzer will soon be expanded beyond cereal rye to other forms of cover crop, ultimately giving farmers the information they need in order to effectively and efficiently manage their land during “off” seasons.
Read more about the tool below, and sign up to use it here.
The cover crop project seeks to provide farmers with a practical web-based decision support tool designed to help manage cover crops in their fields. The project makes use of existing research to demonstrate the potential for cover crops, as well as providing useful information for decision-making and management of this practice. It will also seek to apply future research on cover crops as results are incorporated into updates and new iterations of the tool. This remains a work in progress with a goal toward adapting with the science.
To date, extensive research has found that adopting cover crops in the fallow season of commercial row crop production can improve soil health by, among other things, improving soil organic matter, carbon, as well as water retention and some weed suppression. Importantly, cover crops are a critical practice for the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and the voluntary efforts to reduce nutrient losses from farm fields. The growing cover crop will scavenge unused inorganic nitrogen and store it in the plant’s biomass, reducing losses; it also provides a cover to protect against soil erosion and export of other nutrients from fields.
This project proceeds from an understanding that better information and functional assistance with decision-making can increase the successful adoption of this important practice. The tool will provide farmers, researchers, extension educators and others in the industry with data and information about cover crops in a practical, visualized format. The information the tool provides is integrated into common cropping systems and the first iteration uses cereal rye added to a corn-soybean rotation for fields in Illinois. At this time, fields outside of Illinois are not included in the tool but can be added in future releases and as data becomes available.
Funding for this project has been provided primarily by the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council (NREC). The project team greatly appreciates the financial, technical and other support from NREC and Illinois farmers. The latest release adds to the dashboard, providing users with information about the decomposition of the terminated cover crop. This first-of-its-kind functionality was generously funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Finally, initial seed funding for the project was also provided by the McKnight Foundation and the University of Illinois.
The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50 for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.