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Do Cover Crops Help Farmers Save Costs?

September 3, 2020


Natalie Lounsbury with tillage radish cover crop. Photo credit: Jack Gurley
Natalie Lounsbury with tillage radish cover crop. Photo credit: Jack Gurley

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.

Last month, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program published a report analyzing the results of their 2019-2020 Cover Crop Survey that assesses the benefits, challenges, yield impacts, and scale of adoption of cover crops across the United States. Though it was once an annual development, this is the first survey conducted in three years by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) with financial support from SARE and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).

Background

The results of past surveys among cover crop users revealed trends of increased soil health and yield boosts which, combined with lower input costs, often improve profit. In addition, cover crops provide enormous benefits for carbon sequestration and broader climate change mitigation. Rob Myers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for North Central SARE, observed in a summary of this most recent report that:

“Many farmers are finding that cover crops improve the resiliency of their soil, and the longer they use cover crops, the greater the yield increases and cost savings that are reported by producers.”

These benefits prevailed despite the 2019 planting season being the wettest on record in the United States, a condition which produced the slowest corn and soybean planting in history. In fact, though many farmers were concerned about the effects of cover crops in a wet year, most cover crop users surveyed revealed that the practice enabled them to plant earlier by virtue of improved soil drainage and transpiration of moisture. 

This year’s survey results include perspectives from 1,172 farmers representing all 50 states. Ninety-three percent of respondents reported having used cover crops before, with 11.5 percent having shifted from no cover crop acres to some between 2015 and 2019. Highlights derived from these farmers’ experiences and observations are below. 

To read the full 2019 National Cover Crop Survey report, click here

Key Findings

Drawing from the report, key findings of this year’s Cover Crop Survey include:

  • Farmers who cover cropped saw an average yield increase of five percent for soybeans, two percent for corn, and 2.6 percent for spring wheat. These gains were modest due to the wet conditions of the season. 
  • On herbicide costs, soybean growers saved on average 41 percent, corn growers saved 39 percent, spring wheat growers saved 32 percent, and cotton growers saved 71 percent. 
  • On fertilizer costs, soybean growers saved on average 41 percent, corn growers saved 49 percent, spring wheat growers saved 43 percent, and cotton growers saved 53 percent. 
  • Cover crop users reported spending less this year than previous years on cover crop seed purchase, with a median cost of $16 to $20 per acre compared to a median cost of $25 per acre in earlier surveys from 2012 and 2013.
  • Horticulture producers (i.e. fruits, vegetables, nuts) were queried about the impact of cover crops on their profits for the first time, to which 58 percent reported a minor to moderate increase in net profits. 
  • An overwhelming 91.2 percent of farmers reported seeing an improvement in weed control after a solid stand of cereal rye cover crop at least two feet tall at the time of termination.
  • There was an increase in farmers who planted green, in which farmers plant a cash crop like corn or soybeans into a still-living cover crop. Seventy-one percent of these farmers reported better weed control and 68 percent better soil moisture management. 
  • The most common cover crop species planted alone or in a mix, were cereal rye, radish species, and oats with 203,887, 101,467, and 74,572 acres respectively.
  • In a series of questions about crop insurance, 72 percent of respondents said they had no fields declared “prevent plant.” In addition, 36 percent felt that prevent plant situations were more common in conventional fields (i.e., fields with full-width tillage and no cover crops). 

Challenges to Wider Cover Crop Adoption

The 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture found a 50 percent increase in cover crop acreage between 2012 and 2017, and in this survey participants averaged 465 acres – an increase of 38 percent in four years. While these numbers reveal a sustained, even growing, enthusiasm for and commitment to the practice, a majority of farmers still don’t employ the benefits of cover crops on their farms. Seventy-seven cover crop non-users elected to respond to this survey, shedding light on their varied concerns farmers may have about planting cover crops.

Among the top concerns for farmers were the time and labor required to plant and manage cover crops (70 percent), the fear of “no measurable economic return” (69 percent), and the potential for a yield reduction in the following cash crop (65 percent). The report notes that: 

“These results serve as a challenge to cover crop advocates to engage in more education and better communication about the successful use of cover crops. Despite years of success among many growers in many areas and cropping systems, fundamental worries have a stubborn hold among many other farmers. Demonstrating the more positive outcomes and helping new cover crop users succeed will be vital in overcoming these barriers.”

When asked what approaches would be “very helpful” or “moderately helpful” in encouraging them to consider cover crop planting, the most popular avenues were cost share or incentives to offset the cost of planting (72 percent), tax credits for planting (70 percent), demonstrations, e.g., local farm tours (65 percent), and carbon storage payments (63 percent). With 58.3 percent of cover crop users reporting that it took up to two years to recognize benefits to the practice, the early years can be a test of faith many are unwilling to take without the proper financial incentives and user outreach. 

Eyes on the Prize

NSAC has long recognized the vital role which cover crops have to play in the future of sustainable agriculture. As an outspoken advocate for cover crop adoption, NSAC strongly encouraged farmers to participate in this survey, heralded the benefits of planting cover crops, and reported on the numerous opportunities for federal support available. 

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. In addition, we have promoted cover crops as part of critical USDA working lands conservation programs, like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

We look forward to continuing this work as we build upon the survey’s findings and continue to promote the widespread adoption of cover crops. 


Categories: Carousel, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension


One response to “Do Cover Crops Help Farmers Save Costs?”

  1. Charles david Brannon says:

    Keep up the good work

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