Cover crop demonstrations at 14 North Florida farms show potential for soil health improvement

Do cover crops have a place on your farm?

Through UF/IFAS, 14 on-farm soil improvement demonstrations were started in 2017 to collect crop production and soil data for two years. We interviewed farmers as potential participants and heard positive comments of cover crop use, like “this is what my father did before all the fertilizer sales reps came along”, and “keeping roots and diversity in the system keeps my land productive”. Plenty of articles and science show the benefits of good rotations and cover crops, but our sandy soils and climate make long term investments in the soil a constant struggle. Will they pay off? How quickly can I see yield improvements? With UF/IFAS agent involvement and stronger biological, chemical and physical soil tests to quantify the short-term changes, we hope more farmers will return to this age-old practice and see greater resilience.

With a grant from the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program, the 14 local farms are now part of a study on soil health and forage quality. They range in size and crops, but all have expressed an interest in committing to sustainable land conservation practices like cover cropping. With farmer input, UF/IFAS agents are testing species adapted to our area to document the benefits they may provide for soil, livestock or summer cash crops. One peanut grower with strong nematode pressure said: “something has to change, and if I don’t do it, we’ll be buying more chemicals and getting deeper in debt”.

Already at the early stage of implementation, we have seen other organizations stepping up to the plate. Our local Suwannee County Conservation District matched the $15,000 to expand the number of farms and acres in the study. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Ag Water Policy also realizes how cover crops capture residual nitrogen (to improve water quality) and have started talking about increasing adoption with cost-share reimbursement for seed and equipment. As much is unknown about which species and what management works in north Florida, this project will certainly answer some questions and ask many more.

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