MU part of $6.6 million research project on cover crops

COLUMBIA, Mo. – University of Missouri is part of a $6.6 million research initiative to promote soil health through cover crops.

Rob Myers, MU adjunct associate professor and north-central regional director of extension programs for the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research Education program, was the lead organizer in obtaining funding for the multistate project.

Myers, a national expert on cover crops, spoke at the March 22 project launch at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Myers said the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation will lead the initiative. The Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research contributed a $2.2 million grant for the project, with the remaining funding provided by the Noble Foundation.

MU will receive $200,000 for cover crop germ plasm screening and evaluation at MU’s Bradford Research Center in Columbia. Soil scientist Kerry Clark leads the MU effort. She will work with Myers and others on the multiagency project.

Myers said representatives of land-grant universities including MU, seed industries, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers and others will work together to identify and introduce key traits to improve crop yields and soil health.

Missouri has an estimated 600,000 acres of cover crops. Nationally, the U.S. should surpass 20 million acres of cover crops planted annually by 2020, according to Myers. “The new cover crop varieties developed through this national project will be pivotal to expanding cover crop use on tens of millions of acres, protecting and improving our nation’s soil resources.”

Cover crops reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and aid in pest, weed and disease control. They also improve water availability and crop diversity. Researchers will study and compare small grains, annual legumes and brassica cover crop germ plasm to find the best way to improve soil health.

Field trials will be conducted initially at five sites in Missouri, Nebraska, Maryland, North Carolina and Oklahoma, with tests at additional locations in later stages of the project. The broad geographic area allows researchers to study how cover crops perform in different environments.

Myers said experienced cover crop experts in these states would work with scientists at the Noble Foundation. Research includes traditional and advanced plant breeding and evaluation, with introduction of key traits to improve crop performance and soil enhancement.

Researchers want to identify the best cover crop species and varieties to promote to farmers and ranchers. They will share results with the public through national meetings and peer-reviewed publications.