By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- Research and promotion of soil health and cover crops got a major boost Wednesday as the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation announced a $6.6 million national cover crop initiative.
The foundation is jumpstarting the research initiative with a $2.2 million grant, which will focus on promoting soil health through the development and adoption of new cover crops across the country. The groups announced the foundation's grant at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
"The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is committed to improving the nation's soil health, which is essential to ensuring a productive and sustainable future for food and agriculture," said Sally Rockey, executive director of the foundation. "We look forward to working with the Noble Foundation and a talented team of researchers to develop better-than-ever, soil health-promoting cover crops that will contribute to thriving farms across the United States."
The announcement comes as agriculture has put increased emphasis on soil health and cover-cropping techniques in recent years. DTN/The Progressive Farmer highlighted several issues involved in the growing soil health movement in the mid-February issue of The Progressive Farmer magazine and on the DTN website over the past month. The array of articles from the magazine can be found here: http://dtnpf-digital.com/…
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research was created in the 2014 farm bill as a quasi-private group meant to take federal seed money to leverage more private investment in agricultural research. Congress established the group to recognize the need for greater agricultural science and studies. The foundation was based on a similar effort used to fund health-care research.
The Noble Foundation has taken a growing interest in both cover crops and soil health in recent years. The group spearheaded a new group, the Soil Health Institute, specifically to develop a better understanding of national soils and ways to boost agricultural productivity through soil improvement. Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Foundation, stressed the need for cover crops to help deal with soil erosion and fertility, preserve moisture content, and control weeds and diseases.
"Cover crops play a significant role in sustainable agriculture practices," Buckner said. "It's only fitting to help further research advancement in this area at the national level, which is made possible through the FFAR grant and our team of collaborators."
The groups noted there were multiple other collaborators in this new initiative, including groups involved in the seed industry, as well as USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Further involvement will come from three land-grant universities, and an existing Legume Cover Crop Breeding Team, comprising another six land-grant universities, ARS sites and a producer network.
The groups stated the main focus of the initiative will be to identify cover crop species with the greatest potential to improve soil health and evaluate such species over a broad geography within three groups: small grains (wheat, rye, oat and triticale), annual legumes (hairy vetch, winter peas and clovers), and brassicas (turnips, radishes, kale and mustards).
"The majority of cover crops are forages," said Twain Butler, Noble Foundation research agronomist, who will serve as the project manager. "We will work with seed companies, a broad network of researchers and producers, and other evaluation sites to assess, evaluate and develop a broad solution to impact agriculture and soil health across a significant portion of the United States. Our goal is simple: to get new cover crop solutions into the hands of those who use them or will be using them."
Researchers will also look to identify and introduce key traits that can improve crop performance and soil enhancement. Scientists at the Noble Foundation plan to use advanced breeding techniques that largely have been limited to high-value row crops.
The American Seed Trade Association and its member companies will be involved in supporting the crop breeding, screening and evaluation of cover crops, said Andrew LaVigne, ASTA president and chief executive officer. "This initiative is a key step in helping foster the next generation of cover crop innovation," LaVigne said.
Field trials will be conducted in Maryland for the Northeast, North Carolina for the Southeast, Oklahoma for the Southern Plains, Nebraska for the Northern Plains and Missouri for the Midwest.
Among the universities involved is the University of Nebraska. John Guretzky, associate professor in the department of agronomy and horticulture, is a co-leader on the project. Guretzky said that once Noble identifies superior germplasm for some cover crops, the trial sites will test the germplasm regionally.
"We'll be evaluating the germplasm to see how it performs in different environments," Guretzky said.
The groups stated that researchers involved in the project will share results from this project with the public through national meetings and peer-reviewed publications. Certain outcomes, including molecular markers, will be made available through publication and publicly accessible databases, the groups added.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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