GEORGETOWN, Del. — For the past seven years soil health experts have educated farmers on the shore through workshops and field days presented by the Delaware Soil Health Partnership. The coronavirus pandemic forced the winter soil health series to be moved online. Three virtual Caffeine & Cover Crops webinars were held and subject matter experts discussed topics including cover crop termination strategies, cover crop mixes and cover crop seeding rates. The format change allowed knowledge to be shared with a wider audience while feedback following each event dictated the topic and speakers for subsequent events.
The first session, held Dec. 9, featured Steve Groff, owner of Cover Crop Coaching, Inc., and Mark VanGessel, Ph.D., professor and extension specialist at the University of Delaware (UD), who discussed cover crop termination challenges and successes with over 20 agriculturists.
VanGessel urged attendees to have a back-up plan when terminating cover crop since numerous variables are at play.
Groff stressed the importance of mimicking nature, stating that “soil is meant to be covered,” and that “crop residue is year-round earthworm food.”
Groff also urged patience and not to “fret if you can’t plant early.”
Keith Berns, co-owner of Green Cover Seed, discussed cover crop diversity, rotation and species with an inquisitive audience of 25 on Jan. 14. Berns supported the use of cover crop mixes noting that benefits reach far beyond the next cash crop. Attendees inquired about interseeding and companion cropping; Berns encouraged them to experiment widely and wildly, cautioning growers to start small as not to harm their cash crop.
Berns noted that there is a cumulative effect of residual nitrogen from previous cover crops but it’s nearly impossible to measure nitrogen stored in roots and nodules.
The final event, held Feb. 10, educated over 30 guests on cover crop seeding rates. Jayme Arthurs, state resource conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Delaware opened the discussion by explaining how seeding rates are set and updated as new data becomes available. Arthurs noted the USDA NRCS Conservation Practice Standards are available on the Field Office Technical Guide which is accessible through the Delaware NRCS website at www.de.nrcs.usda.gov.
Amy Shober, Ph.D., professor and extension specialist at UD, provided an overview of current cover crop research including limitations and challenges encountered throughout the process. Shober explained that while it is difficult to measure what lies below the surface, smartphone apps have made it easier to measure canopy coverage above ground.
“Cover crops are another tool that farmers can select, mix and apply to provide benefits, not only to a cash crop but to soil and water quality as well,” said Debbie Absher, director of agricultural programs at Sussex Conservation District.
“The virtual events will never replace in-person events, but the virtual format worked really well to make these conversations accessible to speakers and participants. We had lots of good discussions between local farmers and soil health experts from around the country,” said Jen Nelson, executive director of the Delaware Association of Conservation Districts.
–Siobhan Kelley, Sussex Conservation District