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Researchers collect data on hairy vetch breeding efforts at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Center in Knox City, Texas.

$3M grant funds cover crop breeding for organic farmers

A Cornell-led national network of scientists and farmers is developing new varieties of cover crops that are better adapted to local regions and stressors – changes that could carry a bevy of long-term and sustainable benefits for organic growers.

The research has been made possible thanks to a three-and-a-half year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

“Since the development of scientific plant breeding in the 20th century, most of the investment has been in a few major cash crops like corn and soybeans, and in high-value vegetable and fruit crops,” said Virginia Moore, the grant’s principal investigator and an assistant professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science Plant Breeding and Genetics Section Soil and Crop Sciences Section.

 “Very little has been invested in ecosystem service crops, like cover crops, that have huge benefits,” Moore said.

In addition, farmers lack information about how cover crops perform in their areas and which varieties may best suit their needs.  

Cover crops are often grown in crop fields during off-seasons, where they suppress weeds, improve soil and water quality, supply nitrogen, and provide resources for beneficial insects, including pollinators.

The grant includes a network of partners that span the country, including farmers and researchers from multiple universities, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Centers. Within the network, university and government breeders, agronomists and weed specialists will develop cover crops on research and farm sites to improve such qualities as weed suppression, early vigor, increased biomass, winter hardiness, seed yield, disease and insect resistance, soft and non-shattering seed and early flowering.

In collaboration with organic farmers and seed companies, the network is focused on breeding new varieties of hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), winter pea (Pisum sativum), crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) and cereal rye (Secale cereale).

For hairy vetch, winter pea and crimson clover, the current grant continues breeding efforts that began in 2015, with funds from previous grants from NIFA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. By the end of this current grant, the network hopes to release new varieties of these cover crops. The new funding will also support development of a cereal rye breeding program by 2025.

The group plans to hold participatory field days for farmers, seed companies and extension specialists, where they visit breeding plots to help evaluate and rank cover crops based on agronomic preferences. The researchers also aim to compile cover crop variety data from across the country to help farmers select the right varieties for their region and cropping system.

“This project is innovative in applying plant breeding to cover crop species, especially as a collaborative and interdisciplinary national network,” Moore said. “It has the potential for huge impacts on farmer adoption of cover crops and increasing the environmental benefits they provide.”

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Lindsey Knewstub