Michael Fields Agricultural Institute logo
At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

WI Researchers Try “Moneyball” Approach for Cover Crops


EAST TROY, Wis. — Analytics are a key measuring tool in professional sports today, but data-driven assessments aren’t limited to that industry. In Wisconsin, agricultural researchers are asking farmers for feedback about a popular conservation practice.

Cover crops, commonly used in the early days of agriculture, have made a comeback as a way to maintain soil health, prevent harmful runoff into waterways and help a farmer’s bottom line.

Gregg Sanford, associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said their database has performance information from only a handful of sites. He said he hopes farmers across the state will answer a survey to give them more reliable data.

“We kind of realized as scientists, we can only collect so much data,” he said. “There’s a whole range of producers throughout Wisconsin that are using cover crops that are interested in how things are performing on their farm — what’s working, what’s not working.”

Sanford also is a board member at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, which is working with the university on the farmer survey. He said they’ll gather feedback into early December, and hope to have a comprehensive report soon after. Survey details are on the Michael Fields website.

Also leading the effort is Dan Smith, outreach specialist at UW-Madison’s Nutrient and Pest Management Program. One of the goals, he said, is to break down the effectiveness of various cover crops by region.

“We really don’t know what works really well in southern Wisconsin versus what may work really well in northern Wisconsin,” he said. “We have some baseline suggestions, based on some prior research, but we’re looking to zero in on those fine details.”

He said this can be especially helpful to farmers who have yet to try cover cropping, but are curious about it. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released results from its most recent Census of Agriculture. It found that cover crops among American producers increased by 5 million acres since the previous ag census, including an 11% increase in Wisconsin.

The survey is online at michaelfields.org, and the USDA ag census is at nass.usda.gov.

Mike Moen, Public News Service – WI

According to the USDA, there was a nearly 50% increase in cover-crop plantings between 2012 and 2017. Wisconsin researchers are gathering data on the effectiveness of these crops as more farmers adopt the practice.