Research Spotlight: Penn State Research suggests ‘Farm-Tuning’ your Cover Crops

Posted: August 3, 2015

Pennsylvania farmers are innovative by nature and by necessity. Providing meaningful metrics to these innovations is among the prime objectives of the active team of cover crop researchers at the College of Agricultural Sciences.
The cover crop team organizing bins of seeds before planting

The cover crop team organizing bins of seeds before planting

This team - made up of faculty, students, extension educators, and collaborating farmers from across the state - is focusing their multi-year study on designing cover crop mixtures that are multipurpose. But the work doesn’t stop at design. Their goal is to determine agronomic, environmental and economic benefits and costs of these mixtures within an organic corn-soy-wheat crop rotation. 

“The use of cover crops is expanding in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” notes project director Jason Kaye, Associate Professor of Biogeochemistry in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. “Most incentives for farmers are based on monoculture cover crops, for example, rye. A farmer in Maryland gets the most money from the government if they plant a rye monoculture at the right time.” 

The premise of the Penn State research is that, by planting multiple species, farmers can get more from the cover cropping window than just one ecosystem service. “This idea is pretty well-rooted in ecological theory,” says Kaye.

Kaye shared that local farmers are planting diverse cover crops, but without a lot of applied science to tell them what benefits they are getting from them. The Penn State team is helping those farmers by providing data on the benefits and costs. 

Researchers are studying mixes of up to six cover crop species. The mixes are designed to give a variety of functions farmers want, such as nitrogen management, weed suppression, and erosion control.  Each combination of species is assessed for its ecosystem services and the associated economic benefits and costs. 

Aerial view of cover crop research

(Aerial view of cover crop research at Rock Springs farm)

Now, four years into the project, Kaye sees the evidence emerging to support high diversity cover crops. He describes these cocktails of cover crops as a form of insurance for farmers. Insurance that acts as a buffer against the year-to-year and field-to-field variability which farmers experience. But it’s not the number of species, says Kaye, that determines the benefits in most cases, it is the farmer's management. 

“These necessary tweaks,” Kaye says with a chuckle, “we're calling ‘Farm-Tuning.’”

Farm-tuning, like fine-tuning, means making small adjustments in order to achieve the desired outcome. For instance, a farmer might need to make modest changes to farm conditions to reduce the risk that one of the six species will dominate. Small changes like these, according to the research, make all the difference.

For more information and to follow continued progress of Penn State’s cover crop researchers, visit their website

Article by: Maya Yakobi