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Precision agronomy cover crops by soil type and their soil health footprint

Principal Investigator: Tony Balkwill and Ian McDonald

Research Institution: NithField Agronomy Research and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)

Timeline: May 2019 – March 2023   


  • To use accurate digital soil maps and precision agronomy technologies as the basis for large field-scale precision agronomy research trial design in a three crop system (wheat, cover crop, corn and soybean).
  • To study soil type variability impacts on treatment response within the same environments where each soil type’s unique soil health and soil fertility development can be studied over the course of three complete three-crop rotations (9 years; this project covers the first 4 years).
  • To determine if significant differences in soil health rankings can be observed with various cover crop treatments across various soil type regions within a field over a reasonably short period of time (6 years vs 9 years, 2 or 3 rotations) by incorporating different cover crops into row crop production systems.
  • To provide proof of concept of the use of “precision agronomy” farming techniques to accurately manage research project plots over long periods of time.
  • To evaluate the impact of soil type on the performance and management of cover crops when located in the same landscape (i.e., treatment effects can be investigated on different soil types in the same field at the same time).


  • Improved understanding of the role cover crops play in soil health over different soil types and landscape positions within a field.
  • Potential for further adoption of cover crops by providing producers with new knowledge about how to better manage cover crops in Ontario to protect against soil erosion and the movement of nutrients into neighboring surface water bodies during significant precipitation events.
  • Potential to evolve accepted scientific methodologies used to study agricultural treatment effects by utilizing more “precision agronomy” farming techniques to accurately manage research project plots over long periods of time.

Scientific Summary:

The project will cover the first four years of an intended nine-year duration (three complete rotations of wheat, corn and soybean). Cover crops will be established after the wheat crop.

The proposed project will focus on two areas:

  1. Investigate via a pilot project a new methodology of implementing larger field-scale precision agronomy research trials that allow the investigation of treatment effects at a farm scale level across varying soil type zones while maintaining the operational integrity of small plot research.
  2. As a platform for the pilot investigation, explore the utility of cover crops established following wheat harvest in the production system through replicated soil health tests as a means of understanding the value of the proposed trial methodology.

Both objectives will rely on full-scale field size research layouts as a platform for this project. Fields will have a foundation template of the soil map to be used to delineate the field’s variability. Soil health points and cover crop treatment strips will be geo referenced and accurate to repeat these treatments over each cropping season and ensure assessments are accurately gathered within a field scape that would otherwise be impossible to collect accurately without significant field measuring, etc.

This project will be analyzing the large volume of data to look at the potential of standardizing large-scale precision agronomy research for a broader audience of both current academic research and Grain Farmers of Ontario growers. This project will look at systems and protocols needed to conduct this sort of data-rich large-scale research with any growers across Ontario that have the technology invested in their equipment. The goal is to prove a concept of using precision agronomy technologies to facilitate in-field research, which will allow greater access to data associated with varying environments across Ontario, which will provide a more thorough investigation of treatment effects as influenced by factors of geography, climate, soil, etc.

External Funding Partners:

Canadian Agricultural Partnership

This project was funded by the Canadian Agriculture Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.