The Use of Cover Crops as Climate-Smart Management in Midwest Cropping Systems
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The observed trends in the Midwestern United States of increasing rainfall variability will likely continue into the future. Events such as individual days of heavy rain as well as seasons of floods and droughts have large impacts on agricultural productivity and the natural resource base that underpins it. Such events lead to increased soil erosion, decreased water quality and reduced corn and soybean yields. Winter cover crops offer the potential to buffer many of these impacts because they essentially double the time for a living plant to protect and improve the soil. However, at present, cover crops are infrequently utilized in the Midwest (representing 1-2% of row cropped land cover) in particular due to producer concerns over higher costs and management, limited time and winter growing conditions as well as the potential harm to corn yields. In order to expand their use, there is a need to quantify how cover crops impact Midwest cropping systems in the long term and namely to understand how to optimize the benefits of cover crops while minimizing their impacts on cash crops. We are working with APSIM, a cropping systems platform, to specifically quantify the long term future impacts of cover crop incorporation in corn-based cropping systems. In general, our regional analysis showed only minor changes to corn and soybean yields (<1% differences) when a cover crop was or was not included in the simulation. Further, a “bad spring” scenario (where every third year had an abnormally wet/cold spring and cover crop termination and planting cash crop were within one day) did not result in any major changes to cash crop yields. Through simulations we estimate an average increase of 4-9% organic matter improvement in the topsoil and an average decrease in soil erosion of 14-32% depending on cover crop planting date and growth. Our work is part of the Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agriculture Project (CSCAP), a collaboration of eleven Midwestern institutions established to evaluate how conservation practices, including cover crops, improve the resilience of Midwest agriculture to future change. Such collaborations can help better quantify long term impacts of conservation practices on the landscape that ultimately lead to more climate-smart management of such agricultural systems.