What is iCOVER? Girish Chowdhary Answers Frequently Asked Questions

What is iCOVER? Girish Chowdhary Answers Frequently Asked Questions

The iCOVER (Innovated Cover-crop Opportunity, Verification, and Economy stimulating technology for underserved farmers using Robotics) Project is researching innovative, equitable ways for farmers to plant cover crops using cutting-edge technology. Originally seed-funded by iSEE, the team received $4,999,999 in funding in 2022 from the USDA’s Climate-Smart Commodities program.

iCOVER Primary Investigator Girish Chowdhary offers answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about the project.

Why are cover crops important to climate-smart agriculture?

Here in the Midwest, we typically only grow cash crops — which are typically corn and soy rotations. About 200 million acres of corn and soy are grown in the Midwest annually, which results in the field being left fallow for most of the year. This creates problems like weeds taking over the fields, soil erosion due to wind, and nitrogen overflows that get into our waterways.

Cover crops are a way to cover the ground during that fallow season and prevent these problems. For example, rye and hairy vetch, common cover crops used in this region, can hold any excess nitrogen that the farmer sprays and fix nitrogen in the soil. That might reduce the amount of nitrogen the farmer has to put on the field the next year. Other plants like turnips break up soil compaction and can be used for grazing animals if farmers want to integrate animals onto the fields during fall and spring. Lastly, all cover crops help with retaining moisture, preventing weeds from taking over, and adding biodiversity into the soil.

How does iCOVER’s work make it easier for farmers to plant cover crops?

iCOVER is really trying to help farmers adopt new ways of cover crop planting that are lower cost and that can scale up more easily.

Right now, farmers struggle with finding the time to plant cover crops. Even though the benefits are well known, cover crop adoption is pretty low: 10% or less. The problem is that farmers can only plant cover crops after the harvest is done, which is late September or October. There’s not a lot of green season left, and it’s an extra task for farmers to go over the field and plant the cover crops.

iCOVER is propagating two novel ways of cover crop planting that can allow in-season cover crop planting using aerial drones and ground robots. This means farmers can plant cover crops earlier in the year — in August or as early as July if they’d like to. That way the crops get more time to establish, and when the field is harvested there’s already a green cover on the ground. This also has benefits of storing a lot more carbon into the ground, but even just from a soil regeneration perspective, it creates a longer season for these cover crops to grow.

How does the cost of robotic cover crop planting compare to the traditional method?

We are working with economists like Shadi Atallah and Madhu Khanna, who have been advising us. We foresee that cover crop planting with autonomous ground robots can go as low as $10 an acre, which is 50% cheaper than what farmers would pay if they were to do cover crop planting with tractors. Plus, it removes all the hassle and results in a better output.

With drones, it could be as low as that, but we’re trying to overcome some technical challenges due to their battery usage … and batteries are more expensive. But in theory, we see a significant cost reduction over what farmers are paying today.

What kind of soil research is iCOVER doing?

We’re creating ways to measure cover crop using remote sensing. This helps farmers to know how much cover crop has grown. We’ve invested in methods to measure in-ground carbon accumulation and spectroscopy using some technologies that are still in early stages of development.

iCOVER is scaling this research up across multiple states. What is it like coordinating across multiple states and different regions?

iCOVER is a partner of the USDA’s Climate Smart Commodities program and has received much of its funding from that program. The goal for this year is to plant around 2,000 acres, which is a pretty aggressive scale for these new types of technologies. Over the next four years, we’re scaling up to 10,000 acres. We have some industry partners who are helping with that. They’re working with farmers to figure out how we can grow the scale.

Demand from farmers is not the challenge, but logistics and coordination are. We also have a lot of requirements from the government to make sure that everything is well documented.

The way iCOVER works is farmers get monetary incentives through the project to adopt cover crops. Because it’s an innovative technology project, there’s some investment in the technology development and deployment. Here in Illinois, we are mostly focusing on cover crop planting with robots and drones. Then at the University, we’re investigating novel ways of measuring carbon in the ground. The third area of research is smallholder farms in Alabama, to see if these methods can be used in those circumstances as well.

So, most of the crops are here in the Midwest with a few satellite farms in Alabama starting around 500 acres and growing to 2,000 acres over the next three years.

Read more about iCOVER >>>

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Erin Minor