Increasing adoption of cover crops and improving agricultural sustainability are goals of a nationwide research project. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded a five-year $10 million grant to North Carolina State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service to lead the effort.

“We’ll build off our existing network of researchers to conduct coordinated experiments,” said Chris Reberg-Horton, an assistant professor in the crop and soil-science department at North Carolina State University and co-leader of the research team.

The existing research network is called "Precision Sustainable Agriculture." It will be expanded to collect more types of data from more locations with different soil types and diverse climates, Reberg-Horton said.

The interdisciplinary team is comprised of crop specialists, computer modelers and social scientists from 36 institutions. They will work to address questions ranging from how cover crops impact herbicide resistance to how cover-crop lushness in different parts of a field affects soil-nitrogen levels.

The team will use technology such as autonomous data collection, cloud-based data platforms and machine learning to expedite discoveries. Edgar Lobaton, an associate professor in the electrical- and computer-engineering department at North Carolina State University will use machine learning and signal processing to analyze data and develop algorithms to predict drought tolerance and resilience of crops. Other researchers will study how cover crops incorporate nitrogen into the soil and impact weed levels.

Information gained from the project will be incorporated into decision-making applications for farmers. Cover crops aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Depending on the local soil type, climate and predominant pests, the app might recommend different cover crops and different management options, Reberg-Horton said.