$5M USDA Grant Funds Illinois-Led Innovative Cover Cropping Project

A robot plants cover crops during the summer growing season for corn. Credit: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Urbana, Ill. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that it is funding a new project led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that will address major obstacles to adoption of cover crops in the United States.

Titled “iCOVER: Innovated Cover-crop Opportunity, Verification, and Economy stimulating technology for underserved farmers using Robotics,” this $4,999,999, four-year project is funded through the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program and was facilitated through the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at Illinois. The project will scale up robotic cover crop planting and verification of soil carbon through innovative radiological robotic sensing technologies, creating markets for climate-smart products for minority underserved farmers growing specialty crops and animal products.


“Cover cropping is hugely beneficial to farmers and the environment by ensuring more carbon in the soil year-round, keeping nutrients where they belong and out of the atmosphere,” said Primary Investigator Girish Chowdhary, Associate Professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering and Computer Science. “But there are three major bottlenecks in cover-crop adoption: high cost and hassle of planting; slow and expensive soil carbon measurements; and low return on investment for farmers.

“iCOVER will scale up autonomous farming and sensing technologies to help reduce the cost and labor burden of cover crop planting, to enable accurate, rapid, low-cost soil measurements, and to explore the market linkages for climate-smart benefits to a diversity of farmers.”

Other U of I project members include Co-PI Angela Di Fulvio, Assistant Professor of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE), and Shadi Atallah, Associate Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics. Chowdhary, Di Fulvio, and Atallah are all part of the Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA), National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). External partners include Tuskegee University, EarthSense, Inc., Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Corteva, and Indigo Ag.

At sites in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa, the team plans to scale up robotic cover-crop planting from 1,000 acres in Year 1 to 20,000 in Year 4 — bringing the cost to less than $10 per acre. Additionally, the team will work with Tuskegee, a Historically Black land-grant university, to enable robotic, high-resolution measurements of soil carbon and to create markets for climate-smart projects for minority, underserved farmers growing specialty crops and animal products.

“And we will work with supply chain partners such as ADM, Cargill, and Nori to quantify the impact of reduced cover-crop planting costs and increased verifiability and certifiability of carbon benefits on farmers’ income in the short run — and increased price premiums for the climate-smart commodities and produce in the long run,” said Chowdhary, who also holds affiliations with Electrical & Computer Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, and the Coordinated Science Laboratory at Illinois. “I am grateful to iSEE, CDA, and NCSA for their logistical and proposal support; to the College of ACES for securing us farm space; and to Tuskegee and our corporate partners for their commitment to this project.”

View more details on the iCOVER web page >>>

Read the Dec. 12 USDA announcement >>>

— iSEE Communications & Public Affairs Director Tony Mancuso