Conquering Cover Crop Challenges - American Farmland Trust

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Conquering Cover Crop Challenges

Soil Health Demonstration Trials: Conquering Cover Crop Challenges Coast to Coast 

Photo Credit: Paul Lum, California wine grape vineyard

Project Purpose

To showcase solutions to regional and cropping system barriers to cover crop adoption through farmer-driven transitions.  

Project Description

Conquering Cover Crop Challenges from Coast to Coast project, funded through a CIG On-Farm Trials grant of $2.6 million, will test innovative solutions that will help overcome regional and crop-specific barriers to cover crop adoption on fifteen farms in five states and three geographic regions. The project includes 5 years of evaluation of comprehensive soil, economic, and social factors and outcomes. Specifically, the demonstration project is: 

  • Addressing cover crop establishment challenges unique to high value, high-input specialty crops, and high disturbance vegetable row cropping in water-limited valleys in California by demonstrating the benefits of cover crop and compost adoption;  
  • Diversifying the traditional corn-soybean rotation and enhancing soil health in Kentucky by converting from a typical corn-bean system to a diversified rotation of corn-rye-soybeans-cover crop; the rye will be no-till planted into corn residue, with most farms already using conservation tillage; 
  • Addressing cover crop timing and termination challenges in cool, humid regions in (1) New York by demonstrating the benefits of a technique called “planting green” and (2) in Connecticut and Massachusetts, demonstrating how shorter maturity silage corn varieties can improve cover crop establishment in systems currently using or interested in adopting no-till practices; 
  • Optimizing nitrogen inputs to cover crop integration through adaptive management as part of the overall Soil Health Management System in New York. 

AFT is also partnering with 13 local conservation districts, university extension departments, and the private sector across five states. The project team is:  

  • Collecting over 500 soil samples and conducting annual in-field assessments that will provide valuable, short-term data for NRCS’ emerging national soil health database;  
  • Further developing AFT’s soil health economic calculator created under a 2018 CIG grant  — Quantifying Economic and Environmental Benefits of Soil Health – to better analyze each farmer’s existing soil health management systems and to predict long-term results;  
  • Conducting social indicator surveys that will pinpoint the project strategies that were most effective at supporting farmers in adopting a soil health management system;  
  • Providing financial support to farms to compensate for the risks involved in changing to cover crops;  
  • Providing technical support to farms that guide them as they encounter obstacles and adapt management strategies; and  
  • Sharing key findings with farmers and agricultural professionals to encourage adoption of conservation practices by neighboring farmers. 

Project Map

Projects by Region


Soil Health Practices
Cover crop mixtures & compost application, reduced tillage

Almond, wine grape, vegetables, barley/tomatoes

Photo credit: Paul Lum – A cover crop mix flourishing between almond tree rows where conventionally there would be bare soil.
New York

Soil Health Practices
Multi-species cover crop mixtures, optimizing in management that accounts for cover crop dynamics, termination timing, planting green, conservation tillage

Wheat, corn silage, corn for grain, soybean, processing vegetables

Photo credit: Aaron Ristow, AFT; Corn planted green into a 6-way cover crop mix.
Connecticut & Massachusetts

Soil Health Practices
Rye, wheat, triticale cover crops and mixtures, conservation/ no-till, short maturity corn varieties

Corn silage​

Photo Credit- Caro Roszell, Massachusetts corn silage crop in cover crop residue

Soil Health Practices
Fall/winter and summer cover crop mixtures, diverse crop rotations (including cereal rye), no-till​

Cereal rye, corn, soybean, wheat​

Current Progress

The first year of work has been completed. Trial implementation is in progress, farmers have received annual reports with baseline soils, economic and social data and interpretation. The baseline soil assessments included the NRCS In-Field Soil Health Assessment, Cornell Soil Health Testing Lab’s Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health, and fertility results and recommendations from regional Land Grant Universities. First year field days and outreach events are also in progress. The initial economic analysis included partial budget analysis and Level I-III T-charts. The social report reviewed the results of the survey, which was designed to assess the motivations for using soil health practices, identify the top three soil health outcomes desired, and barriers such as concerns about adopting new practices.


Lessons Learned from a Full Year of Measured Soil Health, Economic, and Social Indicators

National Programs Interdisciplinary Leads:

Soil Health Management and Climate Outcomes

Economic and Water Outcomes

Social Outcomes

State Teams:



New York

Massachusetts & Connecticut

Upcoming Outreach Events

Roller Crimping Cover Crops for Soil Health and Weed Suppression in Corn Production

August 23, 2022 | 4:30 pm, EST | American Farmland Trust is offering a panel discussion on roller crimping cover crops in corn fields. We’ll hear from Kate Parsons, Massachusetts NRCS Resource Conservationist, who has worked with several farmers adopting roller crimping on their fields, as well as Isaac Freund and John McCauley, two of the 15 farmers participating in AFT’s NRCS On-Farm Trials Conservation Innovation Grant and AFT’s Aaron Ristow on AFT’s on-farm research on roller crimping. The panelists will give 10-minute presentations and then take questions from participants.


Western NY Soil Health Field Day

August 25, 2022


Lessons Learned from a Full Year of Measured Soil Health Economic, and Social Indicators

August 2, 2022 | Registration link coming soon! Lessons learned from a full year of measured soil health economic, and social indicators from 13 conservation innovation grant on-farm demo trials in California, Kentucky, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut – Soil and Water Conservation Society Conference Symposium

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