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Farmers Continue to Reap Big Benefits from Cover Crops

September 22, 2017


Natalie Lounsbury and Jack Gurley checking out a huge tillage radish (which are used as a cover crop) from their field. Photo credit: SARE, Edwin Remsberg.

Farmers and agriculture advocates have for years been extolling the benefits of cover crops – crops grown specifically with the intention of enriching the soil. Not only have producers seen the health and biodiversity of their soil increase, erosion decrease, and improvements in crop production thanks to the use of cover crops, their experiences are also supported by data and research.

The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) – one of the most significant drivers of research on conservation practices like cover crops – recently released the results of its 2016 – 2017 Cover Crop Survey, which show that farmers who used cover crops reap significant benefits related to yields and soil quality. The survey assessed the benefits, challenges, and growth of cover crops, as well as demand for cover crop seed across the United States. For the fifth year in a row, the SARE survey found that farmers who planted cover crops saw a yield boost in the corn and soybeans that followed the cover crop. The survey also revealed a general sense of enthusiasm and support for the conservation practice. One new element was also introduced into this year’s survey – analysis of the impact of cover crops on wheat yields.

Of the 2,012 farmers surveyed for the SARE report, 88 percent were active users of cover crops. Those farmers reported that after using cover crops (as compared to similar fields where cover crops were not used):

  • Corn yields increased an average of 2.3 bushels per acre, or 1.3 percent
  • Soybean yields increased 2.1 bushels per acre, or 3.8 percent
  • Wheat yields increased 1.9 bushels per acre, or 2.8 percent

For an overview of all the study’s findings, please review SARE’s summary analysis.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has long been an outspoken advocate for cover crop adoption. The Coalition helped to develop SARE over 30 years ago, and we are proud that the program has funded over 800 cover crop-related research and education projects to date. We are also strong proponents of USDA conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which help farmers across the country adopt and actively manage cover crops on their operations.

In fiscal year (FY) 2016, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided more than $90 million in EQIP funding for cover cropping. This is nearly double the amount of funding provided through EQIP for cover cropping in FY 2015. This funding provided support for nearly 2 million acres of cover crops across the country, another near doubling since FY 2015. Additionally in FY 2016, CSP contracts included more than 1 million acres of cover cropping conservation activities – including legume cover crops for a nitrogen source, cover crop mixes, high residue cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and more.

NSAC has long urged USDA to ambitiously increase and promote cover crop adoption as a part of CSP, given their enormous benefits for carbon sequestration, soil health, and water management.

NSAC is also actively working to ensure that cover crops qualify as an accepted practice (known as a “good farming practice”) within the federal crop insurance program. Despite the clear risk-mitigating benefits of conservation activities including cover crops, crop insurance rules and guidelines discourage their adoption. For example, if cover crops are not terminated according to given guidelines (which are not always in line with the best growing practices or timing for that particular farm) the producer could be at risk of losing their crop insurance coverage.

Providing federal support for cutting edge research like that produced by SARE is critical to the long-term health and sustainability of American agriculture. We applaud SARE for continuing to prioritize research on crucial conservation practices such as cover crops, and will continue to work with our partners in Congress to ensure the program has the support it needs to continue doing this kind of valuable work long into the future.

Additional highlights excerpted from the SARE report are below. For the full report, click here.

2017 Cover Crop Survey Analysis

Cover Crops Boost Yields and Weed Control

Following the use of cover crops, farmers reported increased yields of corn, soybeans and wheat, and improvement in the control of herbicide-resistant weeds, according to a nationwide survey. In addition, the survey of 2,012 farmers showed acreage planted in cover crops has nearly doubled over the past five years.

This marks the fifth consecutive year in which the survey reported yield increases in corn and soybeans following cover crops (find previous surveys at www.sare.org/covercropsurvey). It is the first year the survey team was able to calculate the impact of cover crops on wheat yields. The poll was conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) with help from Purdue University and funding support from SARE and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).

Herbicide-Resistant Weed Control

“In addition to yield increases, farmers reported other benefits to cover crops, ranging from improved soil health to better control of herbicide-resistant weeds,” notes Rob Myers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for North Central SARE at the University of Missouri. “For instance, 85 percent of the farmers who used cover crops said they have seen improvements in soil health. That reflects long-term thinking and a growing understanding of the enduring value that cover crops deliver.”

Myers adds that 69 percent of the respondents said cover crops always or sometimes improved control of herbicide-resistant weeds. That is a significant number, he notes, as a majority of respondents—59 percent—reported having herbicide-resistant weeds in at least some of their fields.

Planting Trends

Since SARE and CTIC began their annual cover crop survey in 2012, there has been a steady increase in cover crop acreage among participants. In this year’s survey, farmers said they committed an average of 400 acres each to cover crops in 2016, up from 217 acres per farm in 2012. They expected to increase their cover crop planting in 2017 to an average of 451 acres.

The timing of cover crop planting is also evolving.

Cover crops are typically planted in the off-season from cash crops, providing ground cover, nutrient sequestration and scavenging, weed suppression and soil health improvements. Approximately three out of four cover crop acres in the survey were planted after harvesting a cash crop, but the practice of inter-seeding covers into growing cash crops is an emerging trend—27 percent of the respondents said they seeded cover crops at sidedress fertilization time or in late summer.

At the other end of the cycle, “planting green”—seeding cash crops directly into living, green cover crops, then terminating the covers—had been tried or used by 39 percent of the respondents. They said the approach helped suppress weeds, manage soil moisture and maximize other benefits of cover crops. Planting green was uncommon just a few years ago.

Business Opportunities

The last USDA Census of Agriculture found that farmers planted more than 10 million acres of cover crops in 2012. The new agricultural census, which will begin this fall, is likely to find several million additional acres of cover crops planted in 2017.

The growth of cover-crop use is likely to expand a range of business opportunities throughout agriculture. Twelve percent of the surveyed cover crop users hired aerial applicators to seed their cover crops, while 8 percent hired an ag retailer or co-op, and 6- percent hired another farmer to do the planting. Asked who they wanted to buy cover crop seed from in the future, 43 percent said they would like to buy from specialized dealers.

“The SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey is a great opportunity to gather insight into the purchasing decisions of farmers when it comes to cover crops,” ASTA President and CEO Andy LaVigne says. “The data from the previous four years’ surveys shows this is an important time to be involved in this space within the agriculture community, and ASTA members are pleased to support the efforts of SARE and CTIC to gain insight into the cover crop seed needs and requests of farmers nationwide.”

Cover Crop Motivations

One of the most important outcomes of the SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey is insight into what motivates farmers to use—or start using—cover crops, notes Chad Watts, Executive Director of CTIC in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“Among cover crop users, we are seeing great enthusiasm for the soil health benefits of cover crops, with a widespread appreciation for the long-term benefits of covers,” Watts notes. “We’re also seeing openness to practices like inter-seeding and planting green, which raises cover crop use to the next level in terms of creating new options for species and mixes, and new opportunities to get even greater benefits from their covers.

“Among non-users, we’re getting a strong signal that they want more information and training,” he adds. “The feedback we’re hearing through the survey will help guide the research and extension agenda to gather and share the information farmers need in order to adopt and succeed with cover crops.”

Find previous surveys at www.sare.org/covercropsurvey.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Research, Education & Extension


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