AgBioResearch scientist part of team to study effects of cover crops on greenhouse gas emissions

Evaluating the effects of cover crops on greenhouse gases, nitrogen availability and carbon accumulation is the focus of a $749,000 grant awarded to an (MSU) research team.

November 21, 2011

Cover cropsEvaluating the effects of cover crops on greenhouse gases, nitrogen availability and carbon accumulation is the focus of a $749,000 grant awarded to a Michigan State University (MSU) research team that includes AgBioResearch scientist G. Philip Robertson.

MSU Extension senior district educator and cover crops specialist Dale R. Mutch says the research will be beneficial to farmers and non-farmers.

“We know that cover crops can improve soil quality, reduce erosion and surface compaction, recycle nutrients, and decrease weeds, insects and parasitic nematodes while providing nectaries for beneficial insects,” Mutch said. “Now we want to evaluate their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The grant will fund a project that explores how cover crops can be used to improve nitrogen timing on conventional and organic farms. Inefficient nitrogen application can cause increased emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and an economic loss to farmers because of reduced yields.

The research team will examine the impacts of four cover crops over a three-year span at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), which is one of 14 AgBioResearch centers across the state. KBS is the university’s largest off-campus education complex and is committed to providing science and ecology education, conserving natural resources, and developing and observing sustainable agriculture research and demonstration projects and practices.

The team will also document cover crop influence on reducing greenhouse gases in a characteristic crop rotation for Michigan farmers. They will use workshops, field days, fact sheets and bulletins to help farmers understand more fully the relationships between cover crops and nitrogen use.

Robertson is a university distinguished professor in the MSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and an internationally recognized expert on greenhouse gases in agricultural systems. The co-investigator on the project is Dean Baas, research associate at MSU Extension and the KBS Land and Water Unit. Other members of the team are Mutch, Neville Millar, senior research associate at KBS and Steve Miller, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

The grant is one of 23 totaling $19 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“As more and more farmers adopt organic agriculture practices, they need the best science available to operate profitable and successful organic farms,” said Kathleen Merrigan, agriculture deputy secretary for USDA. “These research and extension projects will give producers the tools and resources to produce quality organic food and boost farm income, boosting the ‘Grown in America’ brand.”

Mutch said fitting cover crops into the corn-soybean-wheat rotation could enhance farmers’ profitability while helping the environment. “We also hope this research will stimulate an increased interest in organic production in Michigan and throughout the Midwest.”

Photo: Cover crops

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