Promoting winter cover crops with local data

Conservation authority looking for cover crop impact on water quality in Upper Thames

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In an effort to improve water quality, the Upper Thames Conservation Authority (UTCA) is promoting cover crop adoption by making data on the environmental efficacy of winter cover more relevant to local farmers.

Why it matters: Better economic data would help farmers making decisions about whether to use cover crops.

The UTCA is pursuing the goal through a pilot project in a sub-watershed of Medway Creek. Michael Funk, agricultural soil and water quality technician with the UTCA, says the program is looking at the impact of winter cover — both green and brown — because soil loss during the season poses the greatest risk to water quality.

“That’s where ground is most vulnerable. Sediment is the easiest way to address it,” says Funk. “It’s not the only problem, but we feel it’s a good place to start since usually the higher concentrations of phosphorus comes with sediment.”

“Upper Medway Creek is small enough to count and measure acreage by hand. If we improve things there, and we get results, can we expand it to the whole area?”

Incentives for local farmers

Funk says farmers participating in the project range from long-time to new cover crop users. The types of cover employed are also diverse, although participants are paid based on how much cover they have in terms of acreage and quantity.

“Whatever species you want to use or whatever works for your system. The requirement is we measure the residue in the spring,” he says. “Our target is 60 per cent residue. If you have 60 per cent cover on a given field you’ll receive the incentive for that past cover crop.”

Cereal rye, drilled in after the previous year’s corn crop.
photo: Courtesy Upper Thames Conservation Authority

Funk says the initiative, now entering its third year currently involves about 4,500 acres within the sub-watershed — 2,500 of which are being tested for the effectiveness of winter cover, while the other 2,000 acres act as a coverless control group.

“They’re two sides of the same watersheds. We’re monitoring them separately.”

Funk adds several years of historical water quality data were also collected before the program’s 2018 launch in order to better identify changes.

Cover crops can be challenging from a management perspective and vary in impact from year to year, so the UTCA has partnered with certified crop advisers and Veritas Farm Management to add additional agronomic data to their analysis.

Through tests strips in each field, Funk says Veritas is measuring in-field variances in conditions. This data is made available to participants to build local knowledge on what works, what challenges there might be, and how they can adjust practices to achieve better results, such as changing the timing and density of cover crop seeding.

“We are not blind to the fact that there might be negatives,” Funk says. “It’s gathering solid information that people can be confident in.”

About the author


Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.



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