Development of a cover crop selection decision-making tool for vegetable production in Eastern Canada

Project Code PRR12-020

Project Lead

Laura Van Eerd  University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus

Objective

To develop and validate a Cover Crop Selector tool as a web-based resource that provides informed recommendations about appropriate cover crops to be used in vegetable production ineastern provinces of Canada, including Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island

Summary of Results

Background

Use of cover crops, as a proven best management practice, supports a thriving agricultural system and healthy environment through improved soil and crop management. Particularly, there is a growing interest in adopting cover crops as part of an integrated pest management strategy leading to reduced use of pesticides. Many different cover crops have been identified for their ability to suppress weeds, nematodes, insect pests, and plant diseases in addition to their benefits to improve soil health and nutrient cycling. Appropriate cover crop species and their proper management to attain beneficial attributes are highly specific to local conditions, pest and soil type, climate and cropping system. At the same time, the use of cover crops should be economical and easily incorporated into existing cropping systems. However, information to assist growers in selecting suitable cover crops was limited.

The goal of this project was to develop a comprehensive database of cover crop species suitable for Eastern Canada and an online tool to help growers make customized decisions in selecting appropriate cover crops to match their planting conditions and desired beneficial outcomes.

Approaches

A previous Cover Crop Decision Tool developed for field crops by the Midwest Cover Crops Council was used as a model to adapt for provinces in Eastern Canada. The work included building a database and built-in search capabilities based on the goals of growers for planting a cover crop as well as information on agronomic practices, potential benefits and limitations of specific cover crops.

A project team was established with representatives from each of five participating provinces targeted under this project. Each representative created a provincial steering committee comprised of academic researchers, production specialists, non-governmental organizations, growers, industry and government representatives with cover crop knowledge and expertise. Each team in Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island ensured that the tool recommendations for cover crop species and mixtures were specific for their respective provinces.

The experts gathered scientific information on agronomic characteristics, management practices, and performance as well as advantages and disadvantages for each cover crop to identify the species and mixtures suitable within a region. Data were compiled into a database and then developed into a computerized selection tool for growers to use in their decision-making process. The steering committees met multiple times to validate cover crop data and test the tool functionalities. Regional weather data from 20-50 locations in each province were also collected, validated and processed to provide estimates of reliable cover crop planting dates based on the user’s location. A prototype version of the cover crop selector tool was validated by participating stakeholders.

The project involved a collaboration of over 50 people across 7 diverse teams including web developers, climatologists, and cover crop experts.

Results

As a result of this project, a new Cover Crops Selecting Tool was developed and is now accessible on-line to address the needs of growers in five provinces of Eastern Canada. The tool uses the probability of frost-free periods for each county in each province to establish reliable planting dates for each cover crop. It addresses 8 vegetable crops, including sweet corn, field tomato, potato, cole crops, carrot, onion, cucurbits, and lettuce with about 30 different cover crop species, individually and in mixtures, offering a wide range of benefits for sustainable crop production.

The tool allows growers to input specific soil texture, drainage, and crop information as well as their goals in planting a cover crop (for example, minimizing erosion, biofumigation, weed control, et cetera) to obtain a ranked list of recommended cover crops suitable in their province. The recommendations are provided in a graphic display indicating information about cover crop options and respective planting windows for reliable establishment based on temperature, moisture and frost seeding opportunities, where applicable.

The tool includes an information sheet for each cover crop specific to conditions in each province. It provides agronomic characteristics and management information such as seeding rate and also outlines potential benefits and limitations for the cover crop so growers can make informed decisions based on their operations. The tool is bilingual, offering the information in both English and French languages.

Cover crops should be carefully selected. Using a proven decision making tool is important to allow growers to be efficient and successful in choosing cover crops options with desired beneficial attributes suitable for their production. It is expected that this tool will increase grower knowledge on cover crops, thereby increasing adoption of this practice and concurrently reducing pesticide use and risk.

For more details on this project contact Dr. Laura Van Eerd

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