April 7, 2020
After decades of research, cover crops have been widely shown to be beneficial to crop yields, soil health, and farmers’ bottom lines. However, many obstacles to cover crop adoption still remain – including start-up costs and the amount of time before benefits are seen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program – one of the most significant drivers of research on conservation practices like cover crops – is now circulating their sixth national cover crop survey to better understand why and how farmers use cover crops, and why some don’t. SARE is conducting the 2020 Cover Crop Survey in partnership with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).
Farmers have until April 12th, 2020 to participate in the survey, which can be completed online here: https://bit.ly/CCSurvey2020. The survey only takes about 10-15 minutes to complete and participants who fill out the survey can enter a drawing for Visa gift cards worth $100 and $200.
NSAC strongly encourages farmers to participate in this year’s survey. Survey results from the past four years have been extremely beneficial to informing research needs, policymaking, and outreach regarding cover crops. SARE is also interested in hearing from new users and farmers who have not planted cover crops at all to better understand whether progress is being made with cover crops and what barriers still need to be addressed.
Data from previous surveys, like those published in SARE’s recent report, Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops, have documented that a holistic approach to cover crop adoption is critical. Farmers who are successful with cover crops tend to implement holistic measures to improve their cropping systems overall, rather than undergo one practice change at a time.
Cover crops also increase overall farm resiliency in that both soil and crop performance improve over time. Farmers have documented that fields first planted with cover crops resulted in increased crop yields compared to fields that were not planted with cover crops. Farmers who utilize cover crops also experienced the ability to increase production even following years with extreme weather, such as drought.
While many will find these benefits encouraging, it does take time to achieve them. Returns on the use of cover crops should be evaluated over a multi-year timeline, similar to that of buying farm equipment. However, when utilized for grazing or to control herbicide-resistant weeds, cover crop benefits can be seen even in the first year of use.
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) – both of which help farmers adopt and actively manage cover crops on their operations.
For many farmers, the initial investment required for cover crop adoption remains a major barrier. To address this challenge, several cost-share or incentive options are available to farmers to help cover those initial costs. USDA conservation programs like CSP and EQIP provide financial and technical assistance to support cover crop adoption. EQIP provides short-term, cost-share assistance for individual practices, whereas CSP supports whole-farm and longer-term conservation assistance, including cover crop adoption. In addition to incentives available through federal programs, farmers and ranchers are also often able to receive additional incentives through state agriculture departments or state natural resource or conservation agencies.
For more information on cover crops, check out this cover crop resource page from the Practical Farmers of Iowa (an NSAC member organization), and USDA’s Cover Crop page, as well as SARE’s cover crop resources. Previous Cover Crop Survey reports are also available online.
In addition, to cover crop research, SARE also conducts education and extension programs in an effort to increase knowledge about, and help farmers and ranchers adapt, sustainable farming practices. SARE Outreach produces and distributes practical information based on the program’s more than 30 years of research results.
Learn more on NSAC’s SARE website.