Rutgers students have got it ‘covered’


(Editor’s note: Yousaf Magid is a Rutgers University senior economics major who participated in the International Relations course. John Parke is an adjunct instructor at SEBS  teaching avian identification. He also teaches  International Relations: Leadership for Sustainable Development. Parke is also stewardship project director for the north region of the New Jersey Audubon, and a NJALDP Class VIII graduate.)

ST. CROIX, U.S. Virgin Islands (May 1, 2015) — As part of an International Relations Leadership class, directed by Dr. Mary Nikola, Rutgers University students recently visited the University of the Virgin Islands to learn about the use of cover crops in agroecosystems farming.
While many farmers have become accustomed to using fertilizers and herbicides as a means to replenish nutrients in the soil and control weed growth, cover cropping is now trending as a unique high-value practice for conventional and no-till farming.
Specifically, the students learned cover crops are a type of vegetation grown to suppress weeds, assist with soil erosion control, help with soil water retention, help build and improve soil, and control diseases and pests. Cover crops are also called “green manure” and “living mulches.”
The Rutgers students had the chance to meet agronomy program leader of UVI, Professor Stuart Weiss who introduced students to the benefits of cover crops, and explained his recent fieldwork on the use of cover crops on vegetable crop rotation systems.
“As a student who completed a term of research in the Rutgers greenhouse with commodity crops, seeing this project helped broaden my perspective on how other regions of the world are dealing with agriculture issues”, said Rutgers agricultural science major Nicole Casl.
“Professor Weiss’s work is very applicable to farm fields back here in New Jersey, where corn and soybean dominate the landscape, and they can offer multiple benefits to these cropping systems”, added Rutgers student Yousaf Magid.
The use of cover crops however, in corn and soybean cropping systems also introduces new management considerations and challenges.
The method and timing of cover crop establishment should be adapted to the cover crop species, local environment and farming operation.
While the type of cover crop termination method (winterkill, tillage, mowing, as examples) is important, timing is the most important factor in ensuring that the cover crop does not interfere with the next crop.
Currently, the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service in New Jersey has established a Soil Health Initiative that offers technical and financial assistance to New Jersey agricultural producers to implement multi-species cover crops and companion conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
However, the program has been met with a number producers expressing concerns with some of the requirements associated with the initiative.
Thus, many have been slow to embrace the use of cover crops through an EQIP contract and/or are not in a financial position to experiment with the use of a cover crop.
John Parke, Stewardship Project Director of the New Jersey Audubon, who also accompanied the students to St Croix as a co-instructor for the class, said “To address certain obstacles associated with producers embracing the use of cover crops, New Jersey Audubon, with funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, is currently offering free seed and use of our no-till drill to farmers in three regions of the New Jersey Highlands to try cover crops without the burden of being locked into a federal contract.”
“Much like what we saw in St. Croix with Professor Weiss’s work, the New Jersey Audubon project promotes the use of different vegetation species as non-traditional cover crops (such as partridge-pea, spelt, buckwheat, etc.) that have duel benefits for improving soil health and stability, but also helps water holding capacity of the soil while also providing beneficial pollinator habitat” Parke said. “As a producer becomes better acquainted with the use of cover crops we hope that they take advantage of the USDA-NRCS programs and sign up for additional cover crop assistance.”
The New Jersey Audubon funding, however, is specifically for agricultural producers located within three sub-watersheds of the Highlands region of the Delaware River Watershed in New Jersey.