July 9, 2013
This month, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program published the results of a nationwide survey that assesses the benefits, challenges, yield impacts, and scale of adoption of cover crops. The SARE program worked with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) to survey more than 750 farmers who have grown cover crops across 36 states. The results of the survey confirm that farmers are seeing multiple benefits from cover crops, including increased yields of corn and soybeans following the cover crop.
According to SARE, key findings of the survey include:
Most farmers (72 percent) choose to plant winter cereal grains as a cover crop, while 62 percent choose brassicas and 58 percent choose legumes. Roughly one-third of respondents plant multi-species mixes, which can fix nitrogen, scavenge nutrients, and break up hard pan. Most of the producers surveyed plant cover crops because they reduce soil compaction and erosion. Over 40 percent of respondents plant cover crops primarily for the nitrogen scavenging benefits.
Perhaps most importantly for producers, the survey results note:
Respondents reported increases in 2012 cash crop yields in fields where they used cover crops – an average corn yield of 126.2 bushels per acre after cover crops vs. 115.1 bushels per acre without cover crops. It is important to note that the 2012 drought had a profound impact on corn yields across much of the country[...] Proponents of cover crops point out that water held in the soil by the shading action of cover crops, and the additional moisture-holding capacity of soil in which long-term cover cropping and other conservation practices have increased soil organic matter, likely accounted for much of the yield gain where cover crops were planted.
Producers saw a similar yield increase with soybeans. Increases in yield were even greater in seven states severely impacted by the 2012 drought – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.
The increasing popularity of cover crops points to the great work that SARE and groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) have been doing for many years to assess, demonstrate, and publicize the benefits of cover cropping. Nonetheless, significant barriers to cover crop adoption remain.
The new survey results clearly demonstrate that cover crops are increasing rather than decreasing cash crop yields. This information should help USDA’s Risk Management Agency assess the risk of adopting cover crops. The survey results also provide a great opportunity for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to increase outreach to producers through its Soil Health Initiative.
We look forward to working with SARE, NRCS, RMA and partner organizations to build upon the survey’s findings and promote the widespread adoption of cover crops.
Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment