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Bay Blog: cover crops


Science shows restoration work can improve local water quality

Pollution-reducing practices can improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and have already improved the health of local rivers and streams, according to new research from the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.

In a report released today, several case studies from across the watershed show that so-called “best management practices”—including upgrading wastewater treatment technologies, lowering vehicle and power plant emissions, and reducing runoff from farmland—have lowered nutrients and sediment in local waterways. In other words, the environmental practices supported under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Farm Bill are working.

Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired local water quality: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate marine life, while sediment can block sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and suffocate shellfish. Best management practices used in backyards, in cities and on farms can lower the flow of these pollutants into waterways.

Data collected and analyzed by the Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have traced a number of local improvements in air, land and water to best management practices: a drop in power plant emissions across the mid-Atlantic has led to improvements in nine Appalachian watersheds, upgrades to the District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant have lowered the discharge of nutrients into the Potomac River and planting cover crops on Eastern Shore farms has lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into the earth and reduced nitrate concentrations in groundwater.

“In New Insights, we find the scientific evidence to support what we’ve said before: we are rebuilding nature’s resilience back into the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and the watershed can and will recover when our communities support clean local waters,” said Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale in a media release.

But scientists have also noted that while we have improved water quality, our progress can be overwhelmed by intensified agriculture and unsustainable development, and our patience can be tested by the “lag-times” that delay the full benefits of restoration work.

“This report shows that long-term efforts to reduce pollution are working, but we need to remain patient and diligent in making sure we are putting the right practices in place at the right locations in Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said UMCES President Donald Boesch in a media release. “Science has and will continue to play a critical role informing us about what is working and what still needs to be done.”

UMCES Vice President for Science Applications Bill Dennison echoed Boesch’s support for patience and persistence, but added a third P to the list: perspiration. “We’ve got to do more to maintain the health of this magnificent Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

“We’ve learned that we can fix the Bay,” Dennison continued. “We can see this progress… and it’s not going to be hopeless. In fact, it’s quite hopeful. This report makes a good case for optimism about the Chesapeake Bay.”

You can view an Executive Summary of the report here. Learn more.


Maryland farmers plant record acreage of pollution-reducing cover crops in 2011

Maryland farmers planted nearly 430,000 acres of cover crops in fall 2011 through the state’s Cover Crop Program, the largest planting in Maryland history, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). The 2011 figure exceeds Maryland’s 2013 Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction milestone for cover crop plantings by 21 percent.

Cover crops on a field

Cover crops are widely considered one of the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways to control soil erosion and reduce nutrient pollution to the Bay and its rivers in winter. Collectively, the 429,818 acres of cover crops planted in 2011 will prevent an estimated 2.58 million pounds of nitrogen (60 percent of Maryland’s total pollution reduction milestone goal) and 86,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the state’s waterways.

Farmers plant cover crops such as rye, wheat and barley in the fall after summer crops are harvested. As they grow, cover crops recycle unused plant nutrients remaining in the soil, protect fields against wind and water erosion, and help improve the soil for next year’s crop.

To learn more about Maryland’s cover crop program, visit MDA’s website.


Maryland farmers to plant record cover crop acreage in 2011

More than 1,700 Maryland farmers will plant a record 550,000 acres of winter grains this fall through the state’s Cover Crop Program.

This acreage represents 155 percent of Maryland’s cover crop goal in its Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plan, which spells out how the state will meet federal pollution reduction requirements. Cover crops are considered one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution and help restore the Bay.

Maryland’s Cover Crop Program provides farmers with grants to plant cover crops on their fields immediately following the summer crop harvest.

Cover crops are grains such as wheat, rye and barley that are planted in the fall. Once established, cover crops recycle unused nutrients, helping to improve the soil for next year’s crop. Cover crops also control soil erosion and reduce the amount of nutrients that run off the land into nearby waterways.

Visit Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s website to learn more about the cover crop enrollment figures.


Maryland Farmers Plant Record Amount of Cover Crops in 2010

Maryland farmers planted a record 398,679 acres of cover crops on their farms last fall, exceeding the state’s cover crop goal by 20 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Cover crops are considered one of the best and most cost-effective agricultural conservation practices, also known as best management practices (BMPs). Cover crops help protect the Chesapeake Bay and local waterways by controlling soil erosion and reducing nutrient pollution runoff.

Collectively, the 398,679 acres of cover crops will prevent an estimated 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 80,000 pounds of phosphorus from potentially polluting the Bay and its rivers.

“Maryland is committed to achieving our Bay restoration goals by 2020, five years ahead of any other state in the watershed,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “The fact that farmers exceeded their goal and helped us get 60 percent of the way toward our overall two-year goal across all sectors shows that we can reach our early target.”

Farmers plant cover crops in the fall after harvesting their summer crops. Rye, wheat, barley and other cereal grains are planted as cover crops because they grow in cool weather.

Visit the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s website to learn more about cover crops.


Maryland farmers to plant record acreage of cover crops this winter

A record 1,668 Maryland farmers will plant more than 500,000 acres of winter grains on their fields this year through the state’s cover crop program, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. This is 155 percent of Maryland’s two-year milestone for cover crops.

Cover crops are a key component of restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay by reducing polluted runoff from farm fields. Farmers can plant grains such as wheat, rye and barley in the fall to absorb unused nutrients and control soil erosion.

“Maryland’s cover crop program has the potential to do more for the Bay than ever before,” said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. “Maryland farmers are on track to exceed the two-year milestone for cover crops with record number of approved acres.”

In addition, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) has received a $600,000 grant to implement a cover crop management tool, which will provide data for the Chesapeake Bay model. The tool will use remote sensing to see how efficiently fields planted with cover crops are absorbing nutrients. Farmers will receive reports about their fields from this tool so they can better manage cover crops in the future.

MDA has also launched a pilot program called Conservation Tracker, which will provide accurate accounting of best management practices (BMPs) on Maryland farms. Conservation Tracker will geo-reference farms that use BMPs and calculate their nutrient reduction credits.

The program, now being piloted in Talbot County, will ultimately help MDA target resources to areas that will achieve the greatest benefits to local waterways and the Bay, as well as help the state track and report on progress toward its pollution-reduction milestones through BayStat.


Cover Crops: One Key to Reducing Nutrients to Bay

It's no secret that agricultural runoff in the Bay watershed contributes a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorous to Bay waters. Excessive amounts of these nutrients spur harmful algal blooms that deplete dissolved oxygen levels, block out sunlight needed for bay grasses and, in some cases, produce toxic chemicals that can cause fish kills.

Farmers have been using cover crops as one way to reduce the amount of nutrients that end up in the Bay. Cover crops, which are planted in the fall after the autumn harvest, usually consist of cereal grains like wheat, rye and barley that continue to grow during the winter.

Once established, cover crops absorb excess nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion from rain, snow and wind. For every acre of farmland planted with cover crops, an estimated 6.2 pounds of nitrogen and nearly one-quarter of a pound of phosphorous is prevented from reaching our waterways, according to Bay scientists.

Enrollment in cover crop programs has risen steadily over the past several years, showing farmers' support of the initiative. Besides for the notable benefits to Bay health, cover crops also help farmers by retaining nutrients and increasing organic matter in the soil. They also help block out noxious weeds and can inhibit weed seeds from germinating.

State and federal Bay Program partners have recognized the importance of making cover crop programs available for farmers and are expanding existing programs and developing new ones to meet the increased demand. For example, Maryland has more than doubled its funding for cover crop programs to a record $8 million and 290,000 acres.

Runoff from farmland is one of many factors that contribute to high amounts of nutrients and low dissolved oxygen levels in the Bay. Increased use of cover crops each winter is one way to lessen the human environmental footprint on the Bay and support the restoration of a healthy, balanced Bay ecosystem.

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