Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Research-Based Technical Support Boosts Cover Crop Adoption through Farmers for Soil Health

In this article, you’ll find details on:

  • The Iowa Soybean Association conducts long-term cover crop research through the Research Center for Farming Innovation.
  • This research positions their team of conservation agronomists to provide support to farmers adopting cover crops for the first time through the Farmers for Soil Health cost-share program.

Farmers for Soil Health offers a program that incentivizes farmers to adopt cover crops. Photo: Iowa Soybean Association/Joclyn Bushman

By Laura Temple

Change can be intimidating. And challenging. That includes making significant changes to agronomic systems. 

Cover crops have emerged as a key practice to incorporate into agronomic systems as farmers work to continuously improve soil health and productivity. But for farmers considering the practice for the first time, cover crops can seem intimidating.

“We’ve done lots of research on long-term cover crops,” says Mike Gilman, conservation agronomy lead with Iowa Soybean Association’s Research Center for Farming Innovation (RCFI). “Our team of conservation agronomists brings that information to farmers as we provide technical support for adding cover crops to their systems as part of the Farmers for Soil Health cost-share program.”

The RCFI works with many different partners to leverage soy checkoff investments, including Farmers for Soil Health, a farmer-led partnership created through collaboration between the soy checkoff, the pork checkoff and the National Corn Growers Association, with support from a wide variety of industry, academic and government organizations.

“The Farmers for Soil Health cover crops program accounts for the challenges that come with significant change by including technical assistance as part of the transition cost share of $50 per acre of new cover crops across three years,” Gilman explains. “Our team is ideally positioned to provide that technical support, because much of our cover crop research has been done on-farm.”

The network of conservation agronomists throughout Iowa work in regions of the state they know well, so they understand soil types, weather patterns and more. They provide one-on-one support for farmers who sign up for the Farmers for Soil Health cost-share program, especially in the fall, as they seed cover crops for the first time.

“We start by asking farmers about their goals with cover crops, and then we help them develop a plan to achieve those goals,” he says.

The RCFI conservation agronomists help Iowa farmers in the program tackle the details of cover crops.

  • Participating farmers can discuss and understand the pros and cons of different seeding options for cover crops, from aerial broadcast application in standing crops to drilling following cash crop harvest.
  • Cereal rye is the most common and available cover crop in the region, but farmers interested in mixes of multiple cover crop species can explore local, regional and state research on different options that support specific soil health goals with their assigned agronomist.
  • Grazing cover crops can provide additional value for diversified farms, and technical input ensures the practice benefits crops and livestock.
  • In the spring, conservation agronomists support cover crop termination method and timing. 
  • Planting into cover crop residue or living cover crops can require planting adjustments and possible nutrient management adjustments, which team members help farmers work through.

“We are committed to helping each farmer figure out how to make cover crops work best for their operation,” Gilman explains. “Our expertise is helping change happen in our fields.”

The Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Pork Producers Association and Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance worked together to promote the Farmers for Soil Health program. During the first season of the program, fall 2023 to winter 2024, more than 26,000 acres were enrolled in Iowa. 

Gilman expects those early adopters to champion the program — and cover crops — in subsequent years. He believes that the personal technical support his team provides will be as critical as the monetary incentives in encouraging more farmers to participate. 

“The Farmers for Soil Health program resonates with farmers and is gaining traction because it is being driven by grower organizations that they already trust,” he says. “Looking ahead, Farmers for Soil Health will be developing an outcomes-based marketplace that will further support adding cover crops and other conservation practices.”

The program is currently available in Iowa and 19 other states, and technical support is available to all participants. To learn more about Farmers for Soil Health, visit For more information about how the RCFI maximizes the value of soy checkoff investments in research, visit

Published: Apr 29, 2024