April 20, 2017
Calling all farmers! Whether you’ve been a longtime cover crop user, considered cover crops but haven’t yet made the leap, or have never even heard of cover crops, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program needs your input for their National Cover Crop Survey. For the fifth year in a row, the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) SARE program has partnered with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) to put together this cover crop survey.
The National Cover Crop Survey, which can be taken by clicking this link, takes just under 15 minutes to complete and provides SARE with vital information that helps them to understand why farmers do or don’t use cover crops and how cover crops have benefitted those farmers who do use them. Survey results from the past four years have been extremely beneficial to informing research needs, policy making, and outreach regarding cover crops. We encourage farmers interested in participating to act soon – the survey will close in mid-May.
After the survey closes, SARE will put together a summary report and we at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will publish analysis and commentary on our blog. To read our most recent analysis, click here and to look through SARE’s past survey results click here.
Why Use Cover Crops?
Cover crops benefit farmers and the environment in multiple ways: they help to sequester carbon in the soil, reduce the need for excessive fertilizer use thereby reducing risk of water quality issues, improve overall soil quality and health, and in many cases have been shown to improve crop yields. According to results from the 2016 cover crop survey, for example, corn yields increased an average of 3.4 bushels per acre after planting cover crops – this number grew to 8.3 bushels after a farmer had planted cover crops for more than four years.
Cover crops also act as a force of resilience against fluctuating climate conditions and extreme weather events. In fact, over two thirds of last year’s survey respondents agreed that cover crops stabilized yields during extreme weather events.
According to Rob Myers, the Regional Director of Extension programs for SARE at the University of Missouri:
“In a favorable growing season, we expect to see less of a yield impact… [However,] cover crops really shine in challenging years, when the improvements they influence on soil moisture holding capacity and water infiltration can minimize cash crop yield losses to stress.”
Conservation Programs and Cover Crops
Within USDA, a number of competitive grant programs promote the usage of cover crops and reward farmers for their environmental stewardship. SARE, the survey’s administering program, is a competitive grant and outreach program and USDA’s only program focused solely on the advancement of farmer-driven research and sustainable agriculture. This research program also serves as an important source for sustainable agriculture information. In fact, SARE is the leading provider of free cover crop resources including its famous Managing Cover Crops Profitably publication.
In addition to SARE, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is another vital conservation-based USDA program. This program provides farmers with financial cost-share and technical assistance in exchange for their use of conservation practices, cover crop usage being among them. (And if you or a farmer you know has a CSP contract that is up for expiration in 2017 – note that the deadline for renewals is May 5!)
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is another voluntary conservation program in which farmers can enroll to receive financial cost-share and technical assistance to address natural resource concerns. Planting cover crops is one of the many tools farmers have to address soil and water quality.
The proliferation of cover crops in USDA programs, as well as the large number of farmers who depend upon them for on-farm productivity and soil health, all point to the growing importance of this conservation practice. If you are a farmer, please consider filling out SARE’s short survey and helping to expand one of the largest sources of information on cover crops.