The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant to North Carolina State University to support development and education of a cover crop and no-till production method for organic grains.

The NRCS awarded North Carolina State and its collaborating partner, the Center for Agriculture Partnerships, $249,289 to demonstrate and promote adoption of an innovative cover crop management system (roll kill/no-till) that significantly reduces tillage and resource concerns in organic grain rotations in the Southeast.

Chris Reberg-Horton, project director and professor in the Department of Crop Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said that the intensive tillage needed in organic grain production to control weeds can be the biggest environmental resource concern in an otherwise environmentally-friendly production method.

Cover crop mulches are used by farmers to control weeds, supply nitrogen and reduce soil erosion.

The project funded by this grant will demonstrate an innovative organic grain planting system that significantly reduces tillage, and, therefore, soil resource concerns in organic grain rotations.

Other North Carolina State faculty members involved in the project are Alan Meijer, soil science extension associate, specializing in tillage and soil management; Paul Mueller, interim associate dean for international programs and professor of crop science; and Julie Grossman, assistant professor of soil science, focusing on soil fertility management in organic cropping systems.

The roll-kill/no-till practice starts with rolling and killing a cover crop with a tractor-mounted, heavy roller that has crimping blades attached in a chevron pattern. Corn or soybeans are planted directly into the rolled cover crop mulch. The mulch, in conjunction with other innovative weed management tools, suppresses weed growth, increases carbon sequestration, and reduces soil erosion.

Grossman said the project will help farmers understand how legume cover crops can best fit into organic, as well as conventional, production systems. "This project will supply us with critical data about when and how much nitrogen is being provided by different legume cover crops, information which is of vital importance with today's high fertilizer prices," she said.

Three on-farm field days and workshops will be held each year of the two-year project. These events will focus on the cover crop management and roll-kill planting technique that is being demonstrated on cooperating producers’ farms. For announcements on the workshops to be held in April and May 2009, go to: www.cefs.ncsu.edu.

Technical guidelines to implementing the approach will also be published as North Carolina State’s Extension bulletins and in the North Carolina Organic Grain Production Guide.

“NRCS in North Carolina has had a long successful working relationship with North Carolina State University and looks forward to continued success with the implementation of this grant,” said Steve Woodruff, NRCS conservation agronomist, based in North Carolina. “With the increased interest in organic agriculture in North Carolina, it is important to demonstrate methods that maintain yields, while protecting all our natural resources."

For more information about North Carolina State University’s Organic Grain Project, go to: www.organicgrains.ncsu.edu.

e-mail: natalie_hampton@ncsu.edu.