Missouri’s state motto is “Show-Me,” and that’s exactly the point of a unique demonstration farm in Chariton County. An 85-acre site near Salisbury has been set up to identify soil services provided by cover crops and to quantify the value of those services. The farm also seeks cover crop species that make a good fit with the area’s crop rotations and climate conditions.

“Cover crops were a part of agriculture when our grandfathers were farming,” says Kenny Reichert, a farmer who chairs the Chariton County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors. “Back then, they used cover crops without knowing the science behind them. Using today’s technology, researchers can prove the value of cover crops.”

Kenny Reichert says a demonstration farm in Chariton County, Mo., will help identify cover crops that will work for local farmers.

Kenny Reichert says a demonstration farm in Chariton County, Mo., will help identify cover crops that will work for local farmers.

Missouri has 114 of these SWCDs, allowing county level control of the state’s cost share funds provided by a one-tenth of one percent state sales tax; half that revenue funds state parks, while the other half is directed to soil and water conservation. Chariton County is the only SWCD in the state to direct a research farm. “We are only aware of one other conservation district in the nation with a research farm,” Reichert says. “That’s the Menoken Farm in North Dakota operated by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District.”

Opportunity knocks. The demonstration farm culminated from a whirlwind of activity once the Chariton County SWCD decided to go all-in on cover crops. The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative, spearheaded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), sparked initial interest; that led to a local event headlined by NRCS conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta and veteran Ohio no-till farmer David Brandt. “Based on the enthusiasm from that meeting, some of our board members and district employees soon headed for a field day on Brandt’s farm,” Reichert recalls. “Then we brought in Gabe Brown to speak, and eventually found ourselves on a 12-hour drive to see his farm in North Dakota. We talked about a lot of things while we were driving, including the idea of a demonstration farm for cover crops here in the county.”

Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc., owns the 85-acre tract, and a representative of the company thought it would be an ideal property for a demonstration farm. In early 2012, SWCD board members signed a 10-year lease that made the farm available for study and demonstration of cover crops.

The district brought in a number of partners for the farm, including NRCS, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the University of Missouri, and many private entities.

Research focus. The land had been farmed conventionally, so researchers have set up the farm to track changes in soil health. The Missouri Soil Health Assessment Center took core samples at the start, and will do a follow-up assessment after the fourth cropping season ends in 2016.

Divided into sub-watersheds based on remote sensing, field runoff is collected in flumes and compared between treatments.

Divided into sub-watersheds based on remote sensing, field runoff is collected in flumes and compared between treatments.

Using LIDAR, a remote sensing tool, the farm was divided into eight sub-watersheds. Flow meters and automatic samplers evaluate amount and composition of water leaving fields, allowing comparison of cover crop or no cover crop land treatments.

Ranjith Udawatta, a University of Missouri associate professor who specializes in watershed research, leads research on the demonstration farm. “This kind of research takes a long-term approach,” he points out. “This is the fourth crop year, and we are now beginning to see some results.”

Reichert points out that some changes happened fairly quickly. “We saw an increase in earthworm activity right from the start,” he says.“We don’t know what the research will show, but those earthworms are a clue that we’re on the right track.”

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