Safeguarding our Soil

Study at Hundley-Whaley Research Center looks at the future of cover crops to help improve our soils

cover crop precision ag study_hundley whaley_2013_0013Bruce Burdick, superintendent of Hundley-Whaley Research Center, stands in the test plots in which he is studying how cover crops can affect corn and soybean yields.

One of the next revolutions in agriculture may not be a piece of equipment, a new crop or technology. It involves being better stewards of the ground below our feet.

“Paying attention to the health of our soil and soil structure is going to be key in the future,” said Bruce Burdick, superintendent of Hundley-Whaley Research Center. “One way to really help improve our soils is using cover crops.”

To help advance the science of cover crops, Burdick and University of Missouri researchers have begun a multi-year cover crop study at the research center in Albany operated by the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The research hopefully will help solve questions on how cover crops affect the soil, help control erosion and add a benefit to farmers.

Two plots have been designated at Hundley-Whaley for the study. One will be looking at yields of corn and the other soybeans. Each plot will be tested with innovative planting systems across different tillage systems including strip till, no-till and reduced tillage.

A mixture of cereal rye, radish and crimson clover will be used as cover crops with planting treatments using broadcast seeding or row cropping with precision planting techniques.

“Our main goal is to see how the cover crop truly affects the soil and which technique yields the best results,” said Burdick. “We already know that cover crops help with weed and erosion control, increase soil organic matter, improve soil structure and add carbon to the soil profile. But we just want to be able to tell farmers what is the best way to use these crops under a range of tillage conditions.”

precision ag cover crops_0009Cover crops are planted using precision agriculture planting on the left, where as the cover crops on the right were planted using a broadcast seeding method. Burdick hopes that with the future of planting comes better stewardship of the soil. Photo by Bruce Burdick

A benefit of the precision planting is the farmer most likely will not have to buy new equipment. Most planters used for commercial crops can be easily modified for the cover crops. Burdick also believes the row planting will help prevent denser root mats from the cover crops that can sometimes be harder to break up when planting.

The cover crops concept is spreading, especially in Missouri where a longer growing season in the fall means more growth of cover crops.

Another benefit of cover crops is the forage potential. Many rye varieties can be planted to benefit a corn or soybean crop, but can be used to feed livestock either by grazing or bailing.

Not far from Hundley Whaley, Roger Wink of Martinsville is paying attention to the study Burdick has initiated. For the last couple of years he has been using cover crops on the nearly 500 acres he farms. Wink has used triticale, a wheat/rye cross variety that has been producing seven bales an acre in addition to helping improve his soil structure.

“I have had some great success with using cover crops,” said Wink. “They really help control erosion and I hardly ever see any soil loss now. I also can tell that they do a great job to break up the soil and put organic material back into the ground.”

Wink also planted turnips and radishes using a no-till planting system for his corn and soybean fields.

“We ate the turnips and boy were they great!” he exclaimed. “And I am pretty sure the cattle enjoyed them as well.”

He recommends anyone looking to improve their yields to look into cover crops.

“I don’t know why more folks aren’t using cover crops,” said Wink. “We’ve farmed this land for quite a long time and now need to look at what the future will hold for the ground we stand on.”

The multi-year project at Hundley-Whaley also will be replicated in a different soil type at the Bradford Research Center in Columbia. Funds from a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant help support this study.

For more information about the research being done at Hundley-Whaley Research Center, visit or contact Bruce Burdick at 660-726-5610 or by email at

High-resolution photos are available to download on the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Flickr page at

On the outskirts of Albany and located on second bottom river soils, Hundley-Whaley Research Center provides an optimum location for agronomic studies including testing and comparison of new varieties and new products. Research also addresses improved management practices for crops, timber and bottomland soils. Ongoing research projects focus on the best management practices and economics for corn and soybeans. The research center is involved in pesticide evaluations and comparisons, and sustainable agriculture concepts.

An overview of the test plots at Hundley Whaley Research Center.An overview of the test plots at Hundley Whaley Research Center.