Journal of the NACAA
Volume 6, Issue 2 - December, 2013
An NCR-SARE Cover Crop Project: Farmer-Cooperator Motivation And Agronomic Practices
- Sackett, J. L., Extension Educator, University Of Minnesota Extension
The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of what motivates farmers to participate in cover crop projects, specifically Rural Advantage’s NCR-SARE cover crop project, and to identify the major cover crop agronomic practices used. The study concluded that the primary motivator was assisting in cover crop research, and the primary cover crop agronomic practices used for establishment and termination were similar to those used for cash crops. Interest in alternative methods was expressed, however. Implications of the study include: cover crop education and outreach is needed, encourage use of cover crops after early harvested cash crops, and encourage use of alternative establishment methods.
Cover Crops have been used in agriculture for centuries (Magdoff & Van Es, 2009). The potential benefits of utilizing cover crops in a farm rotation are well-documented and include reduced soil erosion, reduced weed pressure, and increased soil health (Clark, 2007; Magdoff & Van Es, 2009; Midwest Cover Crop Council, 2012b; Snapp et al., 2005; Sullivan, 2003). Yet observations show the use of cover crops in the Upper Midwest, particularly Minnesota, is not a common practice. To increase the use of cover crops, a number of cover crop projects that offer monetary assistance (cost-share) have been developed. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) includes payments for cover crop use in two of its programs, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) (United States Department of Agriculture, 2012). Other groups, both public and private, have also offered monetary assistance for the use of cover crops.
Two such groups, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and Rural Advantage, partnered together to apply for a North Central Region – Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) grant for their project titled, “Farmer Field School Approach to Increasing Cover Crop Adoption in Iowa and Minnesota” (NCR-SARE cover crop project). Funding was received and the project began fall 2009. Rural Advantage administered the project in Minnesota while PFI administered the project in Iowa. The project was designed to increase the adoption of cover crops in Iowa and Minnesota by increasing awareness and knowledge of cover crops, increasing interaction between resource people and farmers, increasing the number of farmer experiences with cover crops, and improving each state’s Cover Crop Decision Tool (CCDT). The CCDT was developed by the Midwest Cover Crop Council to give farmers a web-based tool to assist in choosing a cover crop or cover crop mixture to use in their specific farming operations (state, county, cash crop grown, cover crop goals) and can be found on the Midwest Cover Crop Council’s website (Midwest Cover Crop Council, 2012a).
The NCR-SARE cover crop project included education and outreach events, publications, and demonstration acres. These cover crop demonstration acres were obtained by offering cost-share dollars to interested farmers. Both Rural Advantage and PFI had funds to partner with farmers on at least 20 demonstration sites per state. The farmer-cooperators and their respective cover crop demonstration acres were then used as an additional piece to the education and outreach efforts. The Minnesota farmer-cooperators were chosen by Rural Advantage on a first-come-first-serve basis, but geographical disbursement and demonstration aspects were also determining factors. Each farmer-cooperator received up to $20 per acre for up to 20 acres, as well as an additional participation payment of $500; the maximum payment received by any one farmer-cooperator was $900 for 20 acres. All farmer-cooperators were allowed to participate for one year only.
As cover crop cost-share programs like EQIP and the NCR-SARE cover crop project continue to be offered, questions arise. What motivates farmers to become involved with such programs; education, cost-share? How effective is program involvement in the farmers’ continued use of cover crops? Does cover crop education play a role in the continued use of cover crops? Is cost-share assisting in cover crop adoption? Program administrators and program funders need to look closely at the effectiveness of their efforts. This information can be compiled by obtaining specific data from the farmer-cooperators involved with the cover crop cost-share projects.
Purpose and Research Questions
The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of what motivates farmers to participate in cover crop projects, specifically Rural Advantage’s NCR-SARE cover crop project, and to identify the major cover crop agronomic practices being used by these farmers. The key research questions that guided the study were:
- What motivates farmers to become farmer-cooperators in cover crop projects?
- To what extent do farmer-cooperators continue to use cover crops after involvement in a cover crop project?
- To what extent does participation in a cover crop project affect farmer knowledge of cover crops?
- To what extent was the educational Cover Crop Decision Tool used by the farmer-cooperators?
- What agronomic practices are being used by farmer-cooperators in cover crop projects?
Methods and Procedures
A descriptive research design was used to determine the motivation of farmers to take part in the NCR-SARE cover crop project and to identify the agronomic practices being used by those farmers. The target population was the farmer-cooperators that took part in the NCR-SARE cover crop project administered in Minnesota by the non-profit Rural Advantage. Rural Advantage’s NCR-SARE cover crop project farmer-cooperators were used due to their participation in a cover crop cost-share project, access to contact information, and previously developed rapport. There were 17 farmer-cooperators from around Minnesota from both grain and livestock/grain farming operations used for the population of this study.
A written survey was used to obtain information from the farmer-cooperators. To ensure content and face validity, the survey questions were developed by the author of this study and reviewed by the following experts: two University of Minnesota Extension Educators working with cover crops, one Minnesota Natural Resources and Conservation Service employee working with cover crops, and the NCR-SARE cover crop project administrator from Practical Farmers of Iowa.
The survey packet consisted of a six page survey booklet, a cover letter explaining the survey and study, a consent form, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The survey itself was a 4 ¾“ x 5 ½“ booklet developed in Microsoft Publisher. A brief paragraph explaining the study and survey was used as an introduction and was then followed by 23 questions based on the research questions. These questions vary in their design to better reach multiple learning styles. Question format included: yes/no or agree/disagree, open-ended, short-answer, multiple choice, ranking, and Likert scale.
Dillman’s (1978) Total Design Survey Method was used for this study. To ensure reliability of the survey instrument, four pilot surveys were mailed June 18, 2012. Three of these were returned within nine days; their answers were analyzed to check for question understandability and reliability. After analyzing the returned pilot surveys for answer consistency among the recipients, it was concluded that no changes needed to be made to the survey questions and the remaining 13 surveys were mailed on July 2, 2012. As recommended in the Total Design Survey Method, postcards were mailed one week after the survey; the postcards acted as both a ‘thank you’ and a reminder (Dillman, 1978). Any survey recipients who had not returned the survey within the first three weeks received a second survey packet as per Dillman’s (1978) Total Design Survey Method; four of these second survey packets were mailed on July 23, 2012. After seven weeks from the original date, only one survey had not been returned and according to Dillman’s (1978) Total Design Survey Method, a third survey packet was mailed on August 6, 2012, to that farmer-cooperator. The last survey was received on August 7, 2012.
Each survey answer was analyzed for response usability. Responses with incomplete data were not considered part of the overall population number during analysis. Those questions which farmer-cooperators chose to leave blank were considered non-responses, and were considered part of the overall population number during analysis. Response means, percentages, and the number of farmer-cooperators with specific characteristics or answers were then calculated. Microsoft Excel was used to analyze the data.
There were 17 farmer-cooperators involved in the NCR-SARE cover crop project’s demonstration and cost-share acres as of June 2012. Each of these received and returned the study survey resulting in a 100% return rate. The study population (N=17) were all males with the most prevalent age range of 60-69 years (23.5%). Over half (58.8%) were 50 years and older. The population was located in five of the eight Minnesota regions pictured in Figure 1; the regions with the highest number of farmer-cooperators were south central (35.3%), southeast (23.5%), and central (23.5%). The survey population (N=16) represents approximately 5,839 acres with the average number of acres farmed per farmer-cooperator equaling 365. The population’s (N=17) results show that cover crops planted per year averaged 42 acres (if an answer was given as a range, the range was averaged first) which represents 11.5% of the average farm size. Over half (52.9%) of the population (N=17) has a farming operation that consists of both crops and livestock. Of those stating that they raise livestock (N=9), the majority (77.8%) have cattle. The farmer-cooperators that listed the different crops grown in their operation (N=15) produced corn (93.3%), soybeans (86.7%), and small grains (60.0%) as their top three cash crops. Canning crops (peas or sweet corn) came in at 20.0%.
Figure 1. Minnesota regions. Results are being reported by research question.
Research Question 1: What motivates farmers to become farmer-cooperators in cover crop projects?
Survey results showed that the participants’ (N=17) main reason for using cover crops was to reduce soil erosion (47.1%), followed closely by building soil health/organic matter (41.1%) and then weed control (23.5%). The three main concerns about using cover crops were cost, water usage, and establishment/germination, all at 17.6%.
Survey question Q-10 asked the farmers to rank four available options of why each decided to take part in the NCR-SARE cover crop project. Usable results (N=10) showed, “wanted to help with cover crop research in Minnesota” and “ability to get cover crop information and answers,” as the top motivators. Both were listed as the top motivator by 40.0% of the respondents. The “other” option allowed survey respondents an opportunity to list and rank an alternative reason for taking part in the project; 50.0% of the farmer-cooperators listed an alternative reason. Alternative options listed included: building soil health/organic matter, the project administrator, more options, and networking with others. The “other” option was most prevalently ranked as the lowest reason for taking part in the NCR-SARE cover crop project (70.0%). See Table 1.
|Second Reason||Third Reason||Fourth Reason|
|Monetary assistance from cost-share (N=10)||0||0.0||1||10.0||6||60.0||3||30.0|
|Ability to get cover crop information and answers (N=10)||4||40.0||4||40.0||2||20.0||0||0.0|
|Wanted to help with cover crop research in Minnesota (N=10)||4||40.0||5||50.0||1||10.0||0||0.0|
Table 1. Motivation for taking part in Rural Advantage's NCR-SARE cover crop project.
Note: There was one survey with no response and six surveys with incomplete data for this question.
Abbreviations: f is frequency, % is percentage.
The farmer-cooperators (N=17) were asked if they agreed with the statement, “I would not have used cover crops without receiving the cost-share funding through Rural Advantage’s NCR-SARE cover crop project.” 88.2% disagreed with this statement showing that they would have used cover crops without receiving cost-share. Of those that agreed with the statement (11.8%), all were first time cover crop users. See Figure 2.
Figure 2. Would not have used cover crops without receiving cost-share.
When asked how much cost-share they thought would be needed to get more farmers to use cover crops, 31.3% of the population (N=16) said the NCR-SARE cover crop project rate of $20 per acre was sufficient. Farmer-cooperator (N=17) suggestions for future cover crop projects were highly varied with the most prevalent answer being no response (29.4%). See Figure 3.
Figure 3. Suggestions for future cover crop projects.
Research Question 2: To what extent do farmer-cooperators continue to use cover crops after involvement in a cover crop project?
Survey results showed that 64.7% of the population (N=17) had used cover crops prior to participating in the NCR-SARE cover crop project and 35.3% had not. The population (N=17) was also asked if they agreed with the statement, “I would have used cover crops without taking part in Rural Advantage’s NCR-SARE cover crop project;” 76.5% agreed with the statement. Of the 23.5% that said they disagreed with the statement, all were first time cover crop users.
A Likert scale question was used to ask the population (N=15) how successful their cover crop experiences have been; the majority of respondents answered either “mostly” (40.0%) or “very” successful (40.0%). A second Likert scale question was used to ask how pleased the population (N=17) was with the NCR-SARE cover crop project. The reply of “mostly” (47.1%) or “very” pleased (52.9%) was given by 100% of the farmer-cooperators.
When asked if they agreed with the statement, “I plan to continue using cover crops in the future,” 100% of the population (N=17), both those with cover crop experience and those without, agreed.
Research Question 3: To what extent does participation in a cover crop project affect farmer knowledge of cover crops?
The study population (N=17) was asked to rank their cover crop knowledge prior to participation in the NCR-SARE cover crop project. The response of “none” (11.8%), “little” (17.6%), or “some” (41.2%) knowledge was given by 70.6% of the farmer-cooperators. 100.0% of the first time cover crop users (N=6) and 54.5% of the experienced cover crop users (N=11) said they had “none,” “little,” or “some” knowledge before participating in the NCR-SARE cover crop project.
When asked to rank their knowledge after participation, 93.4% of the population (N=15) answered “quite a bit” or “much” knowledge. Figure 4 shows that 100.0% of the first time cover crop users (N=4) and 90.9% of the experienced cover crop users answered “quite a bit” or “much” knowledge. The population (N=15) results showed an increase in knowledge for 73.3% of the farmer-cooperators.
Figure 4. Comparison of knowledge before and after participation in the NCR-SARE cover crop project.
Note: Two surveys in the AFTER category had incomplete data.
Research Question 4: To what extent was the educational Minnesota Cover Crop Decision Tool used by the farmer-cooperators?
Results showed that 41.2% of the population (N=17) had used the Minnesota Cover Crop Decision Tool (CCDT). When compared by experience level, first time cover crop users (N=6) showed more use of the CCDT at 66.7%. When compared by age, those that had used the CCDT were in the ranges of 18-29 years (14.3%), 40-49 years (28.6%), 50-59 years (28.6%), and 60-69 years (28.6%).
Research Question 5: What agronomic practices are being used by farmer-cooperators in cover crop projects?
Results (N=17) show that cover crops were most likely to be planted after a small grain crop (41.2%), a canning crop (17.6%), or soybeans (17.6%). All those growing canning crops (N=3) were located in the south central region of Minnesota. The majority (70.6%) of the cash crops (small grains, sweet corn, peas, and corn silage) can be considered to have an early harvest date (approximately the first week of September at the latest).
Survey responses showed that the most prevalent two establishment methods for cover crops were using a grain drill (64.7%) and using a broadcast spreader after cash crop harvest (58.8%). Of the responses, 29.4% of the population had experience using more than one of the listed cover crop establishment methods. See Table 2.
|Drill after cash crop||Broadcast after cash crop||Broadcast into cash crop||Aerial into cash crop||
High-clearance vehicle into cash crop
|Which establishment methods have you used for your cover crops? (N=17)||11||64.7||10||58.8||0||0.0||1||5.9||0||0.0|
Table 2. Cover crop establishment methods used.
Note: Participants could choose more than one method.
Abbreviations: f is frequency, % is percentage.
Participants were also asked which cover crop species and/or mixes they had used in their farming operations; responses indicated that non-legumes, brassicas, legumes, and mixes had all been used. Of these, winter rye was the most prevalently used (47.1%), followed by oats (29.4%) and tillage radish (17.6%). If taken as a whole, mixes had a 23.5% user frequency and all included a legume. See Figure 5.
Figure 5. Cover crops used by participants.
Note: Participants could list more than one.
A question regarding cover crop termination methods was also included in the survey. Results showed the farmer-cooperators’ preferred termination method for cover crops was tillage (82.4%) followed by herbicide use (41.2%) and winter/frost kill (35.3%). A total of 64.7% of the population had experience with multiple termination methods.
This study sought to gain a better understanding of what motivates farmers to participate in cover crop projects and to identify the major cover crop agronomic practices being used. The conclusions of this study were based on the written survey results from the NCR-SARE cover crop project farmer-cooperators. Data from this study was specific to this population. Results from this study are unique due to the lack of published data on farmer motivation for participation in cover crop cost-share projects.
It can be concluded from survey results that the main motivation for farmer-cooperators to participate in the NCR-SARE cover crop project was the desire to assist in cover crop research followed closely by having somebody readily available to answer their cover crop questions and distribute cover crop information (education and outreach). The monetary assistance in the form of cost-share did not appear to be a large motivating factor to the farmer-cooperators that took part in this study; a majority said they would have used cover crops without the cost-share funds. Results also showed, however, that cost was one of the top three concerns of the farmer-cooperators.
Overall, the majority of respondents stated that prior to participation in the NCR-SARE cover crop project they had “none,” “little,” or “some” knowledge about cover crops. However, after participation in the project, the respondents stated that they had “quite a bit” or “much” knowledge about cover crops. Even with this increase in knowledge, the study results showed that a minority of the population utilized the Cover Crop Decision Tool, one of the NCR-SARE cover crop project’s educational methods.
A majority of the study population had used cover crops before participating in the NCR-SARE cover crop project; only 35.3% had not used cover crops. The farmer-cooperators all stated that they were “mostly” or “very” pleased with the NCR-SARE cover crop project. All of them also stated that they planned to continue using cover crops.
The survey results from the NCR-SARE cover crop project found that the majority of the farmer-cooperators were raising corn and/or soybeans, but indicated that the use of cover crops was mainly after early harvested cash crops. The farmers had varying reasons for using cover crops, but the most prevalent were to assist in keeping soil in place and to increase soil health/organic matter. The use of standard farming operations and equipment, drilling and broadcasting after cash crop harvest, were being used most often to establish the cover crops. However, some respondents expressed interest in alternative methods of establishment. Cover crop selection was quite diverse within the study’s population, although small grain species dominated. Mixtures of cover crop species were also being used. Prevalent termination methods for the cover crops were tillage and herbicide; both of which are standard farming practices.
Recommendations, Implications, and Discussion
This cover crop study had a few notable differences compared to other cover crop surveys (Arbuckle, 2012; CTIC & The Warren G. Buffett Foundation, 2010; Singer et al., 2007). What stands out the most is that other studies included a general sample of farmers; this study only surveyed those farmers who were known to have used cover crops and had participated in a specific cover crop education and cost-share project (the NCR-SARE cover crop project). Because of this, the survey questions were focused differently. The other studies used survey questions to collect data on cover crop perception and use while this study used survey questions to collect data on farmer motivation for participating in a cover crop project as well as cover crop perception and use. This may explain some differences between this study’s results and previous studies. For example, the surveys by Arbuckle (2012), CTIC and The Warren G. Buffett Foundation (2010), and Singer et al. (2007) all had low numbers of respondents that had used cover crops, while the majority of this study’s respondents had used cover crops in the past. Similarities within the results were also seen, however. One such similarity is that the survey respondents stated that cover crops can assist with reducing soil erosion.
The results and conclusions of this study lead to several recommendations for future studies and research. First, there are several similar cover crop programs and/or projects being conducted across Minnesota and the upper Midwest. It is recommended that these programs and/or projects conduct similar studies with their farmer-cooperators. Many of these programs/projects are grant funded. It is important to discover if these funds are going to first time cover crop users, if the farmers are still using cover crops after participation in the programs and/or projects, and what cover crop agronomic practices are being used. Other helpful information would be suggestions from former participants on what changes need to be made to the different programs and/or projects (an education component, quicker turn-around, less regulation on planting dates, etc.).
A second recommendation would be to continue to do research on alternative establishment methods (interseeding with high-clearance vehicles into standing cash crops, aerial seeding into standing cash crops, slurry seeding, seed coatings, etc.) in Minnesota and other states with short growing seasons. Dependable methods of establishment that get the cover crops planted as early as possible and that fit into the corn-soybean system is needed for wide-spread cover crop adoption.
The study’s results indicated that the farmer-cooperators believe that cover crops increase soil health and decrease soil erosion. A third recommendation, therefore, would be to continue research, particularly quantifiable research, on how cover crop species and mixtures increase soil health and decrease soil erosion and what it means for water and air quality.
Further research also needs to be conducted on cash crop and cover crop genetics. The adoption of cover crops would be assisted by early maturing corn and soybean varieties that yield as well as their later maturing counterparts. Genetic research on cover crops that are more cold-hardy and that germinate and grow faster is also needed.
This study’s results can also be used to give recommendations to farmers using cover crops. The majority of the participants used cover crops after early harvested cash crops with success. Farmers with these crops should use cover crops as much as possible. The study’s population also indicated that some were interested in more information on alternative establishment methods. The cover crop community needs farmers to continue trying methods such as slurry seeding, aerial application, and interseeding with high-clearance vehicles.
A last recommendation would be for conducting future cover crop projects. Future projects should include education and outreach components. The results of this study showed that education and outreach is a major motivator for farmers who decide to participate in a cover crop project. The survey results from the NCR-SARE cover crop project farmer-cooperators showed that a majority increased their cover crop knowledge and that all plan on continuing to use cover crops. A direct link between these two results may not be able to be statistically shown, but it can still be concluded that cover crop education assists farmers in having positive experiences with cover crops which can then lead to their continued use.
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