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Need help selecting a cover crop? Online tool can assist

McKinneMike/Getty Images barley field
COVER CROP HELP: There are many cover crops to choose from, and growers have many different needs. The Cover Crop Decision Support Tool developed by the Northeast Cover Crops Council can make it easier for a grower to find a species that might work on their farm.
You can browse a broad selection of cover crops, or put in your address and get recommendations.

Need help trying to figure out what cover crop will work on your farm? Well, you no longer have to rely on a Midwest tool for help.

Northeast and mid-Atlantic growers now have a cover crop selection tool of their own. The Cover Crop Decision Support Tool developed by the Northeast Cover Crops Council is now live.  

The tool includes two parts: a cover crop explorer and a species selector tool. The cover crop explorer allows you to explore cover crops by hardiness zone, name, type, seed and other options. It’s more of an educational tool to learn about cover crops based on type, growth period and expert opinions.

The species selector tool goes further, allowing anyone to type in an address and get specific cover crop  recommendations based on soil type, weather data and a grower’s needs — whether it’s something that will help reduce compaction, improve soil organic matter, fix nitrogen or even provide better grazing.

Steven B. Mirsky, research ecologist in the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., says the tool is the result of a multiyear collaboration between USDA, farmers, Extension educators and others.

It’s modeled after the Midwest Cover Crop Tool, which covers 10 states and Ontario, Canada, and allows farmers to select the state and county they live in, along with what cash crop they intend to grow.

"We really wanted to make a high-quality, user-friendly tool," Mirsky says.

covercrop.toolsCover Crop Decision Support Tool website

BROWSE COVER CROPS: The tool is broken up into two parts — a cover crop explorer and a species selector tool. The cover crop explorer allows anyone to learn about cover crops, either by zone hardiness, type, environmental tolerance or need.

As with many other modern farm applications, data is key. The developers used soil mapping data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to match cover crop selections to soil type. This was relatively easy, Mirsky says, because the government has many years’ worth of soil mapping data on farms.

Depending on location, weather can be a limiting factor in a farmer's ability to plant cover crops in the fall or harvest the following spring to get a cash crop in the ground. But getting that weather data into the tool was a challenge, Mirsky says, because the government never created a weather API (application programming interface) for this purpose before.

So, the developers built their own weather API using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and government data.

“It was just aggregated into one tool,” Mirsky says.

The result is a tool that allows a grower to learn more about cover crops they might not even be thinking about, or create a shopping list of cover crops based on their location and needs.

“I consider the species selection tool to really be a gateway experience," Mirsky says. "It's really for the beginner cover cropper who wants to learn about cover crop information and get some broad knowledge about cover crops, and maybe even the intermediate grower to just get a sense of what they can do with cover crops.

"But the tool is still very course in its recommendation. It's not really a site-specific recommendation tool like around your nitrogen management, your seeding rates, your water dynamics or even economics. It's a softer tool that broadly aggregates information based on experts.”

But enhanced capabilities are coming. Mirsky says that within a year, a new tool will have the ability to make recommendations and consider factors such as seeding rate, nitrogen and economics.

Access the tool and start exploring cover crop options at covercrop.tools.

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